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ALL nine chemical containers have ignited at the flooded Arkema plant in Crosby, outside Houston, US.
A controlled ignition of the site’s six remaining containers of organic peroxides was ordered yesterday. Three of the containers had already undergone self-decomposition and caught fire after Hurricane Harvey knocked out the plant’s cooling systems, and the company had said it was inevitable that the final six would also go up in flames.
The Harris County Fire Marshal’s office said in a statement that the control burn was ordered to minimise the impacts on the community. It added that the measures taken did not pose any additional risk to those nearby after a 2.4 km exclusion zone had been set up around the plant. This has now been lifted.
Floods caused by the hurricane cut power to the Crosby plant, and then flooded the back-up generators, causing the failure of the cooling systems for the organic peroxides, which undergo self-decomposition and catch fire when not kept cool. The plant’s back-up nitrogen-cooled trailers then also failed, causing the organic peroxides to reach dangerous temperatures and ignite.
A sheriff’s deputy was taken to hospital for smoke inhalation while 14 other officers also attended hospital. Attention is now turning to the wider environmental impacts that will result from the flooding of one of the world’s most densely-populated industrial centres. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says aerial inspections show that 13 of the region’s 41 highly-polluted Superfund sites have been flooded, prompting concerns about wider contamination.
Two sites have been inspected and do not require emergency cleanup; however, the remaining 11 sites have not been accessible and teams are waiting for the flood waters to recede so they can safely enter and carry out inspections.
At its worst the hurricane shut down 11 refineries. Nine remain out of action, including ExxonMobil’s Beaumont refinery and three facilities run by Motiva, Total and Valero at Port Arthur, according to data from S&P Platts Global. It estimates that if the 10 refineries that are in partial shutdown are operating at 50% capacity. then altogether 3.2m bbl/d or 17% of US capacity will be offline.
The US Chemical Safety Board has launched an investigation into incident at the Arkema plant and follows criticism from safety experts about risk management at the plant.
Sam Mannan, a safety expert at Texas A&M University, told Associated Press that Arkema’s risk management plan for the Crosby site did not address how it would deal with a power or cooling failure or flooding. Furthermore, Trish Kerin, director of the IChemE’s Safety Centre (ISC) registered surprise that Arkema did not reduce the risk of ignition by diluting the organic peroxides with water or by chemically-neutralising them.
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