1 Dead, 2 Injured in Fire at KMCO Chemical Plant in Crosby, Texas

One person has died and two were critically injured in a fire Tuesday morning at KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, the second significant fire at a chemical plant in the Houston area within three weeks.

The fire at the KMCO plant on Ramsey Road, just northeast of town, erupted about 10:55 a.m.  Firefighters extinguished the blaze late Tuesday afternoon, the fire marshal’s office said in a tweet about 4:20 p.m. Responders are continuing to monitor the scene and put out “hot spots,” the office tweeted, while investigators are conducting interviews at the scene and seeking to determine where the fire started and what caused it.

“We are working with the company to determine exactly what chemicals are on site and in the warehouse that is on fire,” said Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office spokeswoman Rachel Moreno..

Moreno said the company believes the fire began when a transfer line carrying isobutelyne, a flammable gas, ignited.

She said helicopter ambulances transported the two injured workers to the hospital, where they are in critical condition.

“My heart and our hearts go out to the families of those who were injured, and the person who passed away as a result of the situation,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who joined Moreno and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez at the news conference, held at a gas station near the facility.

KMCO has activated its incident command center and dispatched its emergency response team to help first responders extinguish the fire, president and CEO John C. Foley said in a statement.

“We are deeply saddened to confirm at this time that there have been injuries and one fatality,” Foley said. “Those injured have been transported for medical treatment. Our hearts and prayers go out to the individuals involved, as well as our first responders, employees, and our community.”

The blaze at KMCO comes almost three weeks after a tank farm at a petrochemical holding facility in Deer Park also caught fire. Investigators have yet to get to determine a cause for the blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Inc., where 11 of 15 tanks in the farm caught fire, sending up a plume of smoke and stoking concerns about air quality in the area.

No serious injuries in that incident were reported and daily press briefings ended on Monday.

“Texas is failing to protect people from chemical fires and explosions and rogue releases of toxic air pollution. It is untenable,” said Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund, in a written statement. “The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must inspect every single facility every single year. That should be a bare minimum.”

In the KMCO fire, Matt Loesel of the federal Environmental Protection Agency said real-time air monitoring using aircraft and a bus-mounted mobile unit have not found any hazardous readings of any substance.

A shelter in place for residents within a 1-mile radius of the plant has been lifted.

Several campuses, including Crosby ISD, Channelview ISD, Galena Park ISD and Sheldon ISD had ordered a shelter in place. Crosby ISD has turned off their HVAC systems.

Crosby ISD ended its shelter-in-places for all campuses but the Crosby Kindergarten Center at about 1:50 p.m. The Kindergarten Center is located within 1 mile of the plant and remains closed.

In a Facebook post, the district said students at the Kindergarten Center are not yet allowed to be picked up, and students who ride buses but live within a one-mile radius of the fire will be transported back to their campus and held there until a parent or guardian can pick them up. The district will not enter the one-mile radius zone with students on board, the post said.

Houston ISD canceled all outdoor activities Tuesday afternoon at the following campuses located in the northeast portion of the district: Robinson, Oates, Hilliard and Elmore elementary schools; Furr and North Forest high schools; and Fonwood Early Childhood Center.

KMCO contractors Brian Balcerowicz and Cesar Mendoza were in the control room when the explosion happened about 10:55 a.m.. That meant they were just a couple of feet away from danger, the former observed.

“They said there had been a problem and stay in the control room,” Balcerowicz said. “About five minutes later we heard and felt the explosion.”

The operator then told everyone to leave the premises. Balcerowicz noted that the control room was a safe place since it was explosion-proof.

Corey Prantil, 31, felt his house shake at about 10:55 Tuesday morning.

From his location about two and a half miles northeast of the KMCO plant, the ground shook, his windows rattled and it sounded like someone was trying to break in through the front door.

“I thought ‘Oh Jesus,’ went outside and drove down the road to the plant,” Prantil said. “I got down there saw where lab was, and the plant was on fire.”

Prantil said he had not been contacted by any local authorities to shelter-in-place but knew the local schools were shutting off their HVAC systems and keeping students inside as a precaution.

He watched smoke fill the sky from his back porch about an hour after the blast, looking to see whether the wind was pushing the black smoke closer to his house. It was.

The conflagration reminded him of what happened at the Arkema plant during Hurricane Harvey, when several of their tanks caught fire after the site was flooded by torrential rains. As a state trooper who responded to that blaze, he was troubled by that company’s refusal to answer basic questions about the chemicals they had on hand and how much fluid was leaking into nearby floodwaters and neighborhoods.

Prantil said the Arkema incident, coupled with the fire at an Intercontinental Terminals Company plant in Deer Park in late March, should prompt local officials to take more action to police Houston-area chemical facilities.

“It seems like Houston is the capital of plants blowing up recently,” Prantil said. “I think Harris County needs to step up on enforcement. a whole lot doesn’t get said by these companies, and I don’t think that’s right.”

Ernest Roder lives across Clara Wilson Road from the plant. Roder, 71, was working with his son on a tractor in his metal farm building when they felt a concussion.

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SOURCE: Houston Chronicle, by Shelby Webb, Nguyen Lee, Dug Begley, Zach Despart