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Industrial Safety

One dead, two seriously injured in fire at KMCO specialty chemical plant in Houston area

Environmental groups sue EPA to push for worst-case planning for spills

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
April 4, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 14

 

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Credit: CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom
An April 2 fire at a KMCO plant in Crosby, Texas, killed one worker and injured two others.

An explosion and fire at the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, killed one worker, James Earl “Bubba” Mangum, and critically injured two others on April 2. The specialty chemical manufacturer makes products for automotive, petroleum, industrial, and agricultural markets.

Accident information was scant as of C&EN deadline, but the fire is thought to have been caused by a leaking transfer hose that released flammable isobutylene. The isobutylene ignited and the fire spread to tanks holding ethanol and a warehouse, said Rachel Moreno, a spokesperson for the Harris County Fire Marshal. The community within a one-mile (1.6 km) radius of the plant was ordered to shelter in place for several hours until the fire was put out.

As of C&EN deadline, investigators had been unable to enter the plant, which is located near Houston, to determine the exact cause of the incident, Moreno said.

Likewise, investigators had been unable to enter the accident site of a March 17 tank farm fire at the nearby Intercontinental Terminals Co. facility in Deer Park, Moreno said. Eleven tanks at the large distribution facility caught fire and burned for three days. A mix of chemicals from the plant and fire-fighting foams was released to air and into the nearby Houston Ship Channel, which closed for several days.

Both accidents are being investigated by the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

Meanwhile a coalition of local and national environmental and community groups, several of which are in the Houston area, are suing the US Environmental Protection Agency over a nearly 30-year delay in issuing protective regulations under provisions in the Clean Water Act.

The delayed provisions call for the EPA to develop regulations requiring chemical companies to prepare plans to prevent and respond to potential worst-case scenario spills of hazardous substances, including spills triggered by explosions, fires, and natural disasters that endanger people’s health and contaminate water resources. The suit notes the growing threat of climate change and the increasing frequency of hurricanes and flooding and their impact in chemically related industrial areas.

“From Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Harvey, we’ve repeatedly witnessed communities inundated by toxic flood waters—laced with an unknown concoction of hazardous chemical substances. Black, brown, and poor communities are more likely to be impacted by chemical spills and suffer the health impacts of pollution,” says Michele Roberts, National Co-Coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance.

The Alliance along with Clean Water Action and Natural Resources Defense Council initiated the suit.

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