Is a Chemical Plant on Fire, Dangerous? What does the Wharton Plant Fire Convey?

by | Oct 6, 2022 | Toxic Chemicals | 0 comments

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Even a minute error could boom a chemical industry in a fraction of a second. All the lives around it become ashes in the wink of an eye.

Is the thought itself bloodcurdling?

How dangerous is a chemical plant on fire? The fiery flames and giant clouds of black smoke speak of the danger.

See how enormous is a chemical plant on fire in this video.

In March 2019, a Houston-area petrochemicals terminal in a chemical plant in Deer Park caught fire due to a drop in water pressure. Six tanks containing chemicals used to make gasoline, solvents, and glues had been burning for more than three days.

Having larger oil refineries, Texas has faced recurring episodes of chemical plants on fire in the past decade. Why do oil refineries and chemical plants explode often? Aren’t they following the safety measures laid down by OSHA?

According to a Houston Chronicle analysis, a chemical plant explosion occurs every six weeks in Houston, Texas. Is it alarming?

Let’s delve into the recent chemical explosions in Texas, analyze the aftermath of such chemical fires, and the safety protocols to be followed in the plants.

How did the Wharton chemical plant boom?

Let’s first analyze the Wharton chemical plant on fire in August 2022 and what was behind the scene. Prime Eco Group, Inc. is a specialty chemical product manufacturer for the oil and gas industries and the road and highway construction industries.

On the night of August 2, 2022, around 10:00 p.m., many noted big dark clouds of smoke evolving at the Prime Eco Facility at Wharton. Within a short while, the whole Wharton shook with two loud booms as the plant exploded into a massive fireball.

The enormous fire prompted a shelter-in-place order for residents living near the chemical plant on fire, as well as the closure of a section of State Highway 60. They were asked to switch off their ACs and shut the fireplace’s dampers.

Soon a Facebook post by Wharton County Constable’s Office – Precinct 2 alerted the people in the surroundings to be safe. Though the fire was extinguished after 8 hours with the arduous efforts of the firefighters from Wharton County, the Fort Bend County HazMat team, and the local community, the next morning, it reignited. Later it was also extinguished.

The people surrounding the area were ready to vacate if the situation worsened. Thanks to the efforts of the firefighters, the fire did not spread to the residential areas.

However, a big question remained in the minds of the people. What chemicals did catch fire? Is the air safe to breathe? Would it affect my health?

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality announced later that an unknown amount of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, several containers of mineral oil, and a couple of drums of pentene and turpentine inside the facility had caused the fire.

Though no other safety issues were noted by EPA, it is said that OSHA cited Prime Eco Group in April 2019 for three serious violations relating to insufficient respiratory protection.

wharton-chemical-plant-on-fire-after-it-was-extinguished

Texas faces recurring chemical explosions

Texas has seen a lot of chemical plant explosions in the recent past. Let’s have a glance at a few.

August 31, 2017:

Due to Harvey’s flooding, power supplies required to refrigerate volatile peroxides were disrupted, which led to explosions at a chemical factory owned by the French chemical company Arkema in the Houston region during the course of the night. Two explosions and huge black smoke clouds were noted prior to the spread of the fire.

Fifteen police officers received medical attention in the hospital for irritation brought on by smoke inhalation from the facility. Greater injuries were avoided by earlier evacuations of the area and the nearby village.

April 2, 2019

The KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, just outside of Houston, exploded on April 2, 2019. According to media stories, a transfer line ignited a tank containing flammable chemicals inside the plant, resulting in an explosion and leaving the chemical plant on fire. The massive fire burned for 5 hours, killing one person and injuring two others.

November 27, 2019

Remember the chemical plant on the fire incident in Deer Park we have seen in the beginning? Three persons were hurt in that large explosion that occurred early on November 27, 2019, at a chemical facility. The blast was too powerful to break windows and damage doors in adjoining homes, waking up inhabitants who were fast asleep.

Dark clouds of smoke billowed from the factory for several hours. Then, in the early afternoon, a second, much larger explosion tore through the plant, shooting up a huge ball of flames.

The Port Neches Fire Department advised everyone downwind of the smoke to hide in a place in the morning. Residents living within a mile of the petrochemical plant were required to evacuate.

April 7, 2021

A massive industrial fire erupted on April 7, 2021, at the K-Solve Chemicals plant in Channelview, Texas. A shelter-in-place order has been issued for Lakeside Park Estates and Lakeview Homes, which are located near the plant in the 1000 block of Lakeside Drive.

July 7, 2022:

A Pipeline explosion in Wallis, Fort Bend County, Texas, occurred on July 7, 2022. Since the pipeline explosion occurred in an isolated area in a field, casualties did not occur. However, the residents from the nearby areas were evacuated for some time to avoid fatalities.

Why does Texas face more chemical blasts?

Texas leads the U.S. in crude oil and natural gas production, with 31 petroleum refineries. Texas provided 43% of the nation’s crude oil production and 25% of its marketed natural gas production in 2021. To assist those industries, Texas has more plants producing the chemicals used by the Petrochemical industries.

Do you know how many chemical plants in Texas and Houston produce chemicals for the Petrochemical industries? There are around 618 chemical manufacturing companies in Houston alone. Think about the whole of Texas.

Though the Petrochemical industries spike the economy of the U.S., Texas has to risk the lives of thousands of workers and the residents of the nearby area. They are exposed to the chemicals in the plants and Petrochemical industries. When the owners of the industries fail to comply with the safety standards laid out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they put the lives of the workers in peril.

The Petrochemical industries use chemicals such as Olefin derivatives, including ethylene, propylene, and butadiene; aromatic derivatives, including benzene, toluene, and the xylene isomers; and methanol.

Carelessness in following the safety measures will cause these volatile chemicals to cause explosions and put the chemical plants on fire. Natural calamities like hurricanes and floods can lead to more explosions in chemical plants.

In the week after Hurricane Harvey’s “dance of death,” more than 1 million pounds of hazardous air pollutants were emitted, according to public regulatory records compiled by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Causes of chemical plant explosions

The production of enormous quantities of highly hot gas by decomposition or combination processes, which expands quickly and raises pressure, is the primary cause of chemical explosions. The abundance of hot gas effectively creates shock waves, resulting in an explosion with potentially quaking effects.

When the chemical plants fall short of safety precautions and negligence on the part of the employees, it results in a chemical plant on fire. The following are the common causes of chemical plant explosions in Texas and other places.

  • Defective or unsafe machinery,
  • Improper machinery maintenance
  • Undetected or untreated corrosion;
  • Boilers that are not adequately maintained;
  • Smoking cigarettes carelessly while on the property;
  • Use of impure or soiled chemicals;
  • Inadequate employee training,
  • Supervisors’ failure to check if workers are adhering to federal safety standards.

Though these are the usual causes of chemical plant blasts, we are unsure about the details of the real causes of the Wharton plant fire apart from the presence of hand sanitizers and mineral oils.

Injuries from a chemical plant on fire

Even if a small building is on fire due to a gas cylinder explosion, nobody can go nearby. The enraging fire could obliterate all the materials and people inside in the blink of an eye if people are not alert. Imagine a big oil and gas refinery chemical plant on fire. The heat, pressure, noise, and shock it would create would be enormous and could destroy a vast area. The monstrous fire would play havoc with everything within its reach.

Can you imagine the injuries such an explosion could cause? It would be devastating. Though the Wharton Prime Eco chemical plant fire did not injure anyone, a chemical plant explosion could cause fatal and extensive injuries to people.

Usually, the injuries from a chemical plant explosion can be classified into four main types.

Primary explosion injuries: The explosion wave passing through the body causes primary explosion damage. As the high-order explosion causes explosion waves, they could cause primary blast injuries. Organs that are filled with air are more severely damaged by the blast wave. Lungs, ears, eyes, gastrointestinal organs, and the brain can damage by these types of injuries.

Secondary explosion injuries: The debris that enters or interacts with the bodily surface is what causes the secondary blast injuries. Debris may include fragments of the explosive device and its contents as well as anything that was nearby the initial blast device when it exploded.

Tertiary explosion injuries: Tertiary blast injuries occur when a person is expelled through the air and collides with another object as a result of the blast wind or when a structure crumbles and injures the person. If the victim is propelled and the striking structure enters the body, the resulting injury can be either blunt trauma or penetrating trauma.

Quaternary explosion injuries: Exposure to fire, fumes, radiation, biotoxins, smoke, dust, toxins, environmental exposure, and the psychological impact of the event can all cause quaternary blast injuries. Because of all the debris, wounds can become extremely contaminated from a plethora of sources.

In layman’s terms, the common fatal injuries caused by a chemical plant on fire would be as follows.

Burns

Due to the excessive heat produced in the explosion, the major injury would be burn injuries. A chemical plant on fire could produce thousands of degrees of heat and result in horrific burns. The chemicals that caused the explosion would add to the severity of the burn depending on the chemical. These injuries would not only be painful but also would cause irrevocable scarring and disfigurement. Long-term and extensive treatments and plastic surgeries would be needed to correct the scarring to an extent.

Sprains and fractures

Broken limbs, damaged vertebrae, skull fractures, sprains, and strains can be caused by the debris and objects that are shattered in the chemical explosion. Severing or shattering body parts could also occur.

Lacerations

The sharp shattered pieces of the debris from the blast can inflict deep lacerations or slashes on the body. These deep wounds will necessitate long-term treatments and leave permanent scarring and disfigurement on the body.

PTSD

The victims encountering such a big blast can have episodes of nightmares from psychological trauma. The people living nearby will face emotional distress and anxiety and will have to live in a persistent fear lifelong.

Acute acoustic trauma

The victims can encounter acoustic trauma, an immediate and prolonged hearing loss following an impulse or blast noise. The loud blast noise can damage the eardrum very badly.

Who adjudicates the safety of chemical plants?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) draft the safety measure for a chemical plant and its employees, and the mishaps are monitored and investigated by The Chemical Safety Board (CSB).

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

To make sure that workers are informed about chemical and toxic substance hazards in the workplace and related protective measures, the OSHA created the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS).

All owners or employees who have hazardous chemicals in their workplaces are required to have safety data sheets for their workers and to train them in the proper handling of the chemicals.

Chemical manufacturers and importers are also required to assess the hazards of the chemicals they produce or import and to create labels and safety data sheets to communicate the hazard information to their downstream customers.

Employees must get instruction on the risks posed by the chemicals employed in their workplace, as well as self-protection techniques.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) stipulates that hazardous waste must be safely handled, treated, stored, and disposed of. The EPA is responsible for enforcing these regulations. Through a thorough compliance monitoring program that includes facility inspections, document reviews, and enforcement action where necessary, EPA and the states ensure that RCRA is in compliance with these requirements.

To stop chemical mishaps and emissions, EPA carries out the procedures outlined in Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act.

Businesses and operators of amenities that produce, process or store extremely hazardous substances are required to identify risks related to an accidental release, design and maintain a secure environment, create a risk management plan (RMP) and reduce the effects of any accidents that may result in releases.

To confirm compliance and guarantee the caliber of the overall preparedness, prevention, and response, EPA performs inspections and analyses facility RMPs.

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB)

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is a federal non-regulatory agency headquartered in Washington, DC. Its mission is to endorse chemical safety improvements through independent investigations in order to safeguard people and the environment. It analyzes the underlying causes of chemical plant tragedies but does not levy fines or citations.

The agency instead makes recommendations to regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In April 2022, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s head and CEO, Katherine Lemos, urged regulatory organizations to take additional steps to compel businesses to lessen the frequency and severity of explosions. She argued that it was past time for authorities to fully understand the risks posed by reactive chemicals.

Can I sue for the injuries from the chemical plant explosion?

You can definitely pursue a lawsuit for your injuries from the chemical plant on fire.

The company that owns the industrial plant is the first and most apparent entity suspected of being responsible for any chemical plant explosion. There are numerous plant safety, maintenance, and operation rules and regulations. Failure to adhere to these regulations can have disastrous consequences.

Another common cause of plant explosions is equipment failure, malfunction, or defect. This raises the issue of product liability, as the company in charge of designing and manufacturing the equipment used in these plants is also liable for any defects that may appear in their product.

Parties responsible for plant explosions may be forced to repay any and all victims of their damages. The existing workers or the families of deceased workers may sue the chemical plant or the manufacturer of the defective equipment to seek full restitution.

The effects of an explosion are not limited to the initial explosion. While the blast produces flames that can cause serious burns and fire damage, the force of the blast is strong enough to cause fatal injuries. These are referred to as primary injuries. Debris, environmental pollution, and air pollution are all byproducts of an explosion that can linger long after the initial blast.

Chemical plant explosion lawsuit settlements so far in Texas

Though chemical plant on fire is a recurring incident in Texas, only a few chemical plant explosion lawsuits are known to have settled in Texas so far. Many others have settled the lawsuits for undisclosed amounts. Let’s have a glance at the available data on the settlements.

In one of the deadly blasts in BP Texas City refinery, which killed 15 people and seriously injured 170 on March 23, 2005, the manufacturer had agreed to pay 700 million dollars to settle wrongful death and personal injury claims to five families. It has spent around $2 billion to settle all the lawsuits on the blast from the chemical plant on fire.

A Central Texas town devastated by a fertilizer plant explosion in 2013 that killed 15 people, including many emergency personnel, had settled its lawsuit for damages caused by the massive explosion. The West City Council agreed to accept $10.44 million to settle its claims against the defendants in 2020, which included the manufacturers and suppliers of ammonium nitrate, the explosive fertilizer used in the blast, and Adair Grain Inc., the owner of the fertilizer plant itself.

Kuraray America Inc., a producer of chemicals with Japanese ownership, disclosed in October 2019 that it had settled three lawsuits for $92 million in relation to a fire that occurred at the company’s Texas plant in 2018. The settlement included 13 plaintiffs, including the person who suffered the most severe injuries in the incident.

These examples of settlements on the chemical plant on fire incidents give hope to the injured victims or the families that lost their loved ones and properties.

Having a knowledgeable chemical plant explosion attorney to shoulder your lawsuit will fortify your claim. He knows the tactics to negotiate settlements with the manufacturers and owners of the chemical plant on fire. The immediate injuries you had from the blast or the inhalation or of the contaminated air/ accidental ingestion of the chemical that caused prolonged impacts on your life can be claimed as damages.

Exposure to hazardous chemicals from the chemical plant on fire can bring forth dire consequences later in life. If you can prove that the particular chemical plant blast caused those injuries, your reparation will be ensured.

Make sure to have your medical documentation of injuries error-free to build your claim strong. Collate as much evidence of your exposure to solidify your allegations against the chemical plant on fire. Your chemical plant explosion lawyer can get the deserved compensation either through settlement out of the court or in jury verdicts.

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