Houston area residents were startled awake early this morning by a thunderous boom followed up by smoke-filled, orange-tinted skies. The boom, felt at least 20 miles (32 kilometers) away by residents in the Clear Lake suburb, originated from Exxon’s Baytown refining and petrochemical facilities.
Much of the facility erupted in flames, leading to a raging inferno lighting up the Texas night. At least four contractors were injured, with three airlifted to a hospital, according to Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. Two of those workers were reportedly treated for burns while one was being treated for injuries from a 40-foot (12-metre) fall, according to local outlet KTRK.
Sources told Reuters that the fire and apparent explosion — described by the Harris County Sheriff’s office as a “major industrial accident” — started in a hydrotreater unit that had been shut off the previous day due to a bypass line leak. A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office told the New York Times the source of the fire was still under investigation.
“We came home, and we could hear the roaring of the fire in the backyard and then the house,” local resident Maria Fillmore told local outlet KPRC. “We had seen vehicles flying to the Exxon plant, and we had seen cops coming down.”
???? @XOM_Chemical Just had big enough boom that house shook & everything inside the house rattled. Sounded like freight train connecting cars outside the house???? Hope there are no injuries???????? Now some loud droning mixed with low thunder rumbles but not the usual flare sounds #Exxon pic.twitter.com/RjtfKAnkd2
— Tonja Tolleson (@twotees68) December 23, 2021
Almost immediately, concerns over air quality emerged but as of this writing, there are no signs the air quality dropped to unsafe levels for local residents, according to KTRK. Residents flocked to Sheriff Gonzalez’s Twitter account for clarity on whether or not they should evacuate their homes or shelter in place. Those concerns are warranted.
The sprawling 1,375.93 ha Baytown facility houses a chemical and olefins plant and the country’s fourth-largest oil refinery that the company says is capable of processing 584,000 barrels of crude per day. The site was the source of another fire in 2019 which left as many as 37 workers injured. In that case, residents were urged to shelter in place for hours. The plant also released thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide during this past winter’s Texas blackouts, and it’s been subject to a $US14.25 ($20) million lawsuit for violating the Clean Air Act. Exxon is hardly the only polluting neighbour in the area. Petrochemical facilities line the Houston Ship Channel, which Baytown sits near the mouth of, making it among the most toxic places in the U.S.
Despite extensive accounts from residents citing booms, loud rattling, and shaking for miles, Exxon has carefully avoided using the term “explosion” to describe the event. Exxon released a statement early in the morning claiming a “fire” had occurred at their facility at around 1 a.m. local time. The company tweeted that it had finally put out the fire shortly before 9:30 a.m. local time.
“Our first priority is people in the community and in our facilities, Exxon said. “Air monitoring continues along the fenceline. Available information shows no adverse impact at this time.”
Earther has reached out to Exxon asking for clarification around what, exactly, happened, but did not immediately hear back.