A massive explosion and fire at the KMCO chemical plant near Houston killed one worker and badly injured two others Tuesday, March 2, while forcing shelter-in-place orders for nearby communities.

Early results of ongoing investigations of the deadly blast determined that a chemical transfer line ignited a tank full of isobutylene, a highly flammable colorless gas KMCO (pronounced “Chem-Co”) uses in its chemical production.

The explosion occurred around 10:45 in the morning at the KMCO facilities in Crosby, Texas, a few miles northeast of Houston. The blast sent the plant’s 180-plus employees fleeing from the chemical facility and created a giant plume of black smoke that could be seen for miles.

Two Life Flight helicopters airlifted the injured workers to a Houston hospital for treatment. A third Life Flight helicopter went to the scene after a third worker was found, but that person didn’t survive.

The Houston Independent School District and several other schools in the area canceled outdoor activities and maintained a shelter-in-place order for students on campus. The shelter order was lifted by mid-afternoon once the chemical fire was contained.

Residents of nearby communities were also advised to shelter in place, close windows, and shut off air conditioning units. The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality sent air quality vans to affected areas to monitor air pollution.

According to the Houston Chronicle, KMCO and its KMTEX facility in nearby Port Arthur, Texas, have a history of environmental and safety violations. The companies, which produce coolant and brake fluid products for the automotive industry in addition to chemicals used in the oilfield industry, have a history of citations and penalties issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for violations.

Gas, chemical, and industrial waste releases from the KMCO and KMTEX plants have repeatedly disrupted schools and business operations in the Houston area. Harris County sued KMCO in 2008 for chemical spills and fumes that sickened residents. That suit ended the following year with a permanent injunction requiring KMCO to pay $100,000 in civil penalties in addition to allowing investigators quick access to its facilities.

More recently, KMCO was criminally convicted of violating the Clean Air Act in 2016, KHOU 11 Investigates found. The company was ordered to pay $3.3 million in criminal fines according to Houston’s KHOU. KMCO also been fined by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) 10 times since 1995.

In a statement, KMCO President and CEO John Foley said: “We are deeply saddened to confirm at this time that there have been injuries and one fatality. 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.”

Houston Chronicle
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