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Chemicals ignite at flooded plant in Texas as Harvey’s devastation lingers

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Aug ,31 \NewNews

The remnants of Hurricane Harvey carried its wrath up the Mississippi Delta on Thursday, but not before hammering the Gulf Coast with more punishing cloudbursts and growing threats that included reports of “pops” and “chemical reactions” at a crippled chemical plant and the collapse of the drinking water system in a Texas city.

Authorities warned of the danger posed by the plant in Crosby, located 30 miles northeast of Houston, and the French company operating the facility said explosions were possible. Still, officials offered differing accounts regarding what occurred at the Crosby plant, which makes organic peroxides for use in items such as counter tops and pipes.

The plant’s operators, which had earlier Thursday reported explosions, later said they believe at least one valve “popped” there, though they noted it was impossible to know for sure since all employees had left the site.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it had dispatched personnel to the scene, including aircraft to check the smoke cloud as well as other officials, and did not immediately detect issues regarding toxic material.

“EPA has emergency response personnel on the scene and the agency is currently reviewing data received from an aircraft that surveyed the scene early this morning,” Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, said in a statement. “This information indicates that there are no concentrations of concern for toxic materials reported at this time.”

[Threats grow at disabled chemical plant in Texas]

As attention focused on the chemical plant, which Thursday sat under about 6 feet of water following Harvey’s relentless rains, other areas battered by the storm awoke to lingering flooding and the misery left behind.

The storm’s fury was far from over to the east and beyond, as flash flood watches were posted as far away as southern Ohio. The National Weather Service said 4 inches of rain was expected to soak parts of Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee with up to 10 inches possible in some isolated areas in western Tennessee.

In Crosby, the chemical plant’s operators, citing local officials, initially said two blasts rocked the facility after it was rendered powerless by floodwaters.

“We were notified by the Harris County Emergency Operations Center of two explosions and black smoke coming from the” plant, the company, Arkema, said in its initial statement.

Other accounts soon followed. The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office reported “a series of chemical reactions” and “intermittent smoke” at the facility; a county official said there weren’t “massive explosions,” and instead referred to the reactions as “pops” followed by fire.

William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had called the potential for a chemical plume “incredibly dangerous” at a briefing Thursday morning. A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA, said later Thursday that this view had shifted as more information became available from the EPA. She said the EPA is the lead agency on the situation and that FEMA would defer to them.

Still, the operators Arkema warned that there was still a potential for more danger in Crosby. “A threat of additional explosion remains,” said the statement.

Authorities on Wednesday set up an evacuation zone in a 1.5-mile radius from the plant, though the risks could also could be carried by the winds.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said that one deputy was hospitalized after inhaling fumes from the plant, while several others sought medical care as a precaution. Some were still being evacuated at a local hospital, the sheriff’s office said, while others had been released.

The Crosby plant manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used in everything from pharmaceuticals to construction materials. But the stores must remain cold otherwise it can combust. A variety of federal agencies have warned about the dangers of organic peroxides the Crosby plant produces. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns that “contact of organic peroxides with the eyes should be avoided. Some organic peroxides will cause serious injury to the cornea, even after brief contact, or will be corrosive to the skin.” It added that “many organic peroxides also burn vigorously.”

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