The CEO of a chemical plant operating at critical condition in Texas says that there’s no way to prevent an explosion, thanks to flood damage from Hurricane Harvey.
Richard Rowe, the CEO of Arkema’s North America unit, told reporters Wednesday that the company expects the plant will catch fire or explode at some point in the next six days, and that it is powerless to stop it.
Forty inches of rain drenched the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, over the weekend, knocking out most of the systems that let it properly store volatile chemicals on-site, risking chemical fires and explosions. The plant is currently under six feet of water and the staff has been evacuated, Rowe said.
Residents of Harris County who live within 1.5 miles of the plant were also evacuated on Tuesday and ordered to stay away from their homes Wednesday morning. The EPA estimates that about 3,800 people live within a three-mile radius of the site, according to KHOU.
Arkema, state officials, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security say they are monitoring the situation. One worker at a nearby plant who asked to remain anonymous told the Washington Post that in the worst-case scenario, “You get out and try not to be downwind.”
Arkema initially said in a statement that they did not believe there was any “imminent danger,” but “the potential for a chemical reaction leading to a fire and/or explosion within the site confines is real.” A spokesperson for Arkema did not immediately respond to a request for comment on what changed.
The danger comes from the facility’s store of organic peroxides, which need to be kept cool or else they become highly reactive. Officials from the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, Texas Department of Public Safety, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Environmental Protection Agency, and environmental experts either declined to respond to comment or were unable to speak to the exact extent of the threat at the facility.
Arkema’s Crosby site makes organic peroxides, highly reactive chemicals commonly used in the rubber and plastics industry that were also employed in terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Arkema was described as “among the Houston-area sites with the highest potential for harm in an incident,” in a 2016 analysis conducted by Texas A&M and the Houston Chronicle.
“Without power to refrigerate and keep those temperatures low, the chemicals could spark and cause a fire or explosion,” said Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas, an environmental group. “That’s the biggest concern. In addition to the immediate risk of an explosion, that would also lead to a big air release of chemicals, and that would further endanger people breathing the chemicals.”