CROSBY, Texas (NBC News) — A flooded chemical plant near Houston exploded twice early Thursday, sending a plume of smoke into the air and triggering a fire that the firm plans to let “burn itself out.”
Arkema Group, one of the world’s largest chemical companies, had warned Wednesday that the plant would catch fire and explode at some point — adding that there was nothing to stop it.
The plant in Crosby, Texas — about 20 miles northeast of Houston — was inundated by more than 40 inches of rain from Hurricane Harvey and has been without electricity since Sunday.
Arkema spokesman Jeff Carr said the chemicals being released into the air are not dangerous to people, although smoke — similar to that of a large campfire — may affect some.
He added that because the facility’s grounds and those living within 1½ miles of the plant were evacuated as rains from Harvey swamped the region this week, the explosions themselves shouldn’t harm anyone.
Brock Long, administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday that evacuations are based on “plume modeling,” which is used to predict the geographic extent of a hazard area from an explosion.
“By all means, the plume is incredibly dangerous,” Long said of what’s occurring in Crosby.
In a statement issued early Thursday, the France-based company confirmed they had been notified by authorities of the blasts at around 2 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET).
“We want local residents to be aware that product is stored in multiple locations on the site, and a threat of additional explosion remains,” the statement said. “We have been working closely with public officials to manage the implications of this situation.”
It added: “As agreed with public officials, the best course of action is to let the fire burn itself out.”
The firm said it made extensive preparations for Harvey, but “the plant has never experienced flooding of this magnitude before.”
Earlier, Arkema Group spokeswoman Janet Smith told The Associated Press that a blaze was inevitable. “The fire will happen,” she said. “It will resemble a gasoline fire. It will be explosive and intense in nature.”
Several deputies who had been close to the plant had complained of “headaches and dizziness.”
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office tweeted earlier Thursday that one deputy was taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes from the plant and nine other deputies drove themselves to the hospital as a precaution.
In total, 15 law enforcement officers were being observed at the hospital, Bob Royall, an assistant chief with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, told TODAY.
Company officials said the smoke is believed to be a “nontoxic irritant,” authorities added.
The plant manufactures organic peroxides commonly used in everyday products like kitchen countertops, industrial paints, polystyrene cups and plates and PVC piping. The materials must be kept very cool, but refrigerators for the plant’s low-temperature containers are out of commission, and backup generators were also swamped, meaning “the potential for a chemical reaction leading to a fire and/or explosion within the site confines is real,” the company said.
All residents within the 1½-mile-radius of the plant were first evacuated on Tuesday, and the Federal Aviation Administration closed air traffic near the site late Wednesday. The National Guard was on the scene, and the Department of Homeland Security set up a command post near the site.
“We have an unprecedented 6 feet of water throughout the plant. We’ve lost primary power and two sources of emergency backup power. And as a result, critical refrigeration needed for our materials on site is lost,” Richard Rowe, chief executive of the company’s North America operations, said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters before the blasts.
He predicted an “intense fire,” adding: “The high water that exists on site and the lack of power leave us with no way to prevent it.”
The incident raises memories of the devastating explosion at a West Fertilizer Co. facility in West, Texas, in April 2013. Fifteen people were killed, and more than 160 others were injured.
Speaking before the explosions, Rowe said the fire at the chemical plant wasn’t expected to “pose any long-term impact.”
Shawn Hawthorn, a senior firefighter for the Crosby Volunteer Fire Department, said Wednesday that the plant was difficult to reach because streets in the area were under several feet of water.