Chemicals left at flooded Texas plant for safety

September 02, 2017 | 13:47
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WASHINGTON: Company executives said on Friday (Sep 1) they kept volatile chemicals at a flooded Texas chemical plant in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey because that was the safest option to protect the public.
Arkema executives say trying to move compounds out of its plant northeast of Houston as Hurricane Harvey was bearing down on the area would have been too risky. (Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

Trying to move compounds out of the plant northeast of Houston as the storm was bearing down on the area would have been too risky, said Daryl Roberts, a senior official at French chemical company Arkema.

Flooding from the storm cut power used to cool the products, organic peroxides used to make plastics and other materials, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents within 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometres) of the plant due to dangers from the fires.

The jugs of liquid totalling about 500,000 pounds (225,000kg) were moved into nine truck-sized containers, one of which has already caught fire and burned for about nine hours.

Arkema US president and CEO Rich Rowe told reporters the other eight containers are expected to "ignite in the coming days," but there is no telling how long it will take for them to burn themselves out.

"I could not possibly say how long it will take for situation to play itself out," Rowe said in a conference call.

Pressed by reporters on why the company did not have contingency plans to move the chemicals to a safer area in the face of a hurricane, Roberts said there was no practical - or safe - alternative.

"By the time where we got to the point where we expected a once-in-a-lifetime type of catastrophic event ... we thought that the right strategy was to leave the material on site with the multiple layers that we had," Roberts said.

Loading the material on trucks while an evacuation was underway meant running the risk "of us not being able to get it out of the area, or get it stuck in traffic or having a fire or an explosion on a highway or in a more public area, versus in the rural area where this site is," he said.

But even with redundant cooling systems and backup generators, "clearly that wasn't enough," Roberts said.

The Arkema executive said the waters are starting to recede from the plant, but there is no way to restart refrigeration to prevent more fires, especially since local fire officials are enforcing the evacuation zone.

"We'll have to let the materials burn out," he said.

The trailers do not hold pressure so officials are not expecting any kind of "major explosion," Roberts said, although there have been reports of popping noises as the chemicals heat up.


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