Tech A chemical plant exploded twice after getting flooded by Harvey — but it's not over yet

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Amid Harvey's deluge, the chemical plant lost power, leaving the compound it makes unrefrigerated and prone to becoming volatile as they warmed.

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(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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  • The Arkema chemical plant near Houston, Texas, exploded after it was flooded by Tropical Storm Harvey.
  • The plant produces compounds which can become explosive when left un-refrigerated.
  • Harvey's floodwaters knocked out power and backup generators, disabling the refrigeration.
  • 15 police officers were taken to the hospital for inhaling fumes and a 1.5-mile evacuation perimeter is in place.
  • Officials plan to allow the fire to burn out, so there is a risk of further blasts.

Explosions were reported on Thursday morning at a chemical plant near Houston, Texas, which was hit by flooding in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey.

The blasts came less than 24 hours after the plant's North America chief executive said that the company had no way of preventing chemicals from catching fire or exploding after heavy floods inundated the region and swamped the site with six feet of floodwater.

Arkema is on the outskirts of Houston. play

Arkema is on the outskirts of Houston.

(Google)

The Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas (roughly 25 miles northeast of Houston) produces organic peroxides used to make plastic. The compounds are known to be explosive. Amid Harvey's deluge, Arkema lost power, leaving the chemicals un-refrigerated and prone to becoming volatile as they warmed.

Because the chemicals remain un-refrigerated, authorities warned that further blasts are likely.

"The concern is that when these things degrade they generate heat. When they generate heat, they can burn. When they burn, if they burn aggressively, you can have an explosion," Richard Renner, an Arkema executive, told CBSN on Thursday morning in a video posted to Twitter.

The plant was fined nearly $110,000 in February by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over 10 safety violations, The Associated Press reported.

Other chemical plants, including multiple oil refineries, have also faced chemical leaks in Harvey's wake. According to filings reported with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, more than two million pounds of hazardous chemicals have been released into the air.

Arkema confirmed on Thursday morning that it was made aware of the explosions by the local emergency operation, Harris County Emergency Operations Center.

In a statement, the company said the explosions were reported at 2 a.m. local time (CDT) and an evacuation zone of 1.5 miles remains in place around the plant. Police and fire services have also imposed a no-fly zone around the area, which extends to drones.

Smoke streaming from the facility irritated the eyes and throats of more than a dozen law enforcement officers near the scene, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told NBC.

"It's basically like standing over a barbecue pit or something like that, where you get smoke in your eyes," he said.

The National Weather Service Houston tweeted this warning:

This was what the plant looked like before the fire:

The Harris County Sheriff's Office's tweeted that 15 police officers were taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes from the chemical plant. Thirteen were released, while another two are still being assessed.

KPRC 2 Houston reported that some of the officers were complaining of "headaches, dizziness" after the explosions. But Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told reporters that the fumes were not toxic and were similar to "standing over a burning campfire."

There are currently no reports of other injuries.

The fire service downplayed the size of the explosions. Bob Royall, assistant chief of the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office, used the term "container ruptures" when addressing reporters on Thursday. "I don’t want the public thinking these are massive explosions," he said, in a press update that was streamed on Periscope.

Video from local TV station KHOU showed an eerie glow from the fire. The media is being kept back 1.5 miles from the scene:

Arkema warned about the risk of further explosions.

"We want local residents to be aware that product is stored in multiple locations on the site, and a threat of additional explosion remains," the company said. "Please do not return to the area within the evacuation zone until local emergency response authorities announce it is safe to do so."

Earlier on Thursday morning, an Arkema spokeswoman said the fire will "resemble a gasoline fire" and will be "explosive and intense in nature." The spokeswoman agreed with local officials that the "best course of action is to let the fire burn itself out."

The news has wiped roughly $92 to $118 million from Arkema's market value. Shares listed on Euronext are down 2.1% on Thursday afternoon.

The plant is not located in a heavily populated area.

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(Google)

It looks like one of hundreds of tank farms that dot the Texas landscape.

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(Google Maps)

This is a view of the plant from near the front gate:

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(Google)