Second Houston Chemical Plant Fire Spews Thousands Of Pounds Of Toxic Pollutants Into The Air

The KMCO Chemical Plant ablaze April 2, 2019. (Photo: AP)

Another day, another chemical plant fire. That’s the depressing reality in the Houston area. Barely two weeks after a chemical plant fire belched a cloud of toxic smoke over the city of Deer Park, Texas, another plant burst into flames Tuesday in Crosby, Texas, just a half hour drive north.

This time, a worker was killed and another two were severely injured, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office reports.

And authorities are wasting no time to act: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton moved to sue KMCO LLC., the owner of the plant, Tuesday night on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

“I offer my condolences to the families who have suffered injury or loss and to the community impacted by the KMCO fire earlier today,” said TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker, in a statement. “I applaud the attorney general for acting swiftly on my requests to hold KMCO fully responsible.”

So far, all that the Harris County Sheriff’s Office knows, according to its Facebook, is that a line caught fire near a tank full of isobutylene, a flammable gas, which then burst into flames.

The county’s fire marshals have been on site to try and determine the exact cause of the fire, per Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s Facebook.

The Harris County Fire Marshal Office is leading the origin and cause investigation, Rachel Moreno, the office’s public information officer, told Earther.

The TCEQ moved much more quickly after this fire compared with the first one. For the Deer Park fire, which caused about a thousand locals to seek medical treatment, the commission waited five days before filing a lawsuit against plant owner Intercontinental Terminals Company.

Both lawsuits are seeking penalties for alleged violations of the Texas Clean Air Act. Luckily, this latest fire was put out within 24 hours, a stark difference from the last plant’s fire, which billowed millions of pounds of toxic pollutants like into the air on and off for nearly a week.

At the Crosby plant, the fire resulted in 1,043kg of pollutants shooting into the air, according to the TCEQ. It’s a comparably small incident, but isobutylene, toluene, and volatile organic compounds were all in the mix—and can be bad for your health. Toluene, for instance, can cause birth defects in unborn children if inhaled in large quantities.

Local concentrations of every single one of these pollutants temporarily shot past the state’s emissions limits. According to the TCEQ’s only air monitor in the region, the ozone levels spiked 48 parts per billion in the afternoon Tuesday.

The Environmental Protection Agency marks 70 parts per billion of ozone as its health standard.

Earther has reached out to the TCEQ for comment on how it plans to remediate any health or environmental impacts. We’ve also asked the EPA and KMCO for comment on the matter. We will update when they respond.

These incidents are awful, but for many of the residents who have to walk by these industrial facilities, it’s just another day in the life. Crosby, with a population just over 2,000, suffers from a poverty rate nearly twice that of the U.S. at large. The surrounding region sees an elevated cancer risk, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment, from formaldehyde and ethylene oxide.

And while it’s hard to know for sure what causes cancer in any individual, the KMCO Crosby Plant does have some history of emitting large amounts of ethylene oxide and formaldehyde into the air, according to the TCEQ’s records.

While authorities continue to investigate the fire’s cause, local residents have to try to return to normal. A shelter-in-place order lifted Tuesday night, so residents can leave their homes after a day of sheltering in place. But they have to be ready; they never know when the next fire will erupt.

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