HOUSTON (CN) — An explosion and fire at a Houston-area chemical plant Tuesday killed one worker and seriously injured two others, and as the smoke cleared a spotlight fell on the plant owner, revealing a history of environmental pollution violations.
KMCO LP employs 180 workers at its plant in Crosby, 25 miles northeast of downtown Houston, where a tank full of isobutylene, a gas used to make jet fuel and synthetic rubber, caught fire around 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Neighbors said they heard a loud boom Tuesday morning followed by the howls of dogs and the sirens of firetrucks. Emergency responders closed roads around the plant and school districts in the area ordered students and staff to shelter in place.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze by 4:20 p.m. Tuesday, the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office said. The fire marshal’s office was one of 26 agencies at the plant Wednesday morning investigating the incident, Houston’s CBS affiliate reported.
KMCO has not released the name of the worker who was killed, nor the two employees who are hospitalized in critical condition.
Reading from prepared statements outside the plant Tuesday afternoon, the company’s president John Foley said: “I stand before you today mourning the loss of a cherished member of our work family. … We want to apologize for the inconvenience to residents in the vicinity, and the worry that the incident has caused.
“The well-being of our people, neighbors and the environment remain are our top priorities. At the moment no one knows with certainty what happened and I won’t speculate.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, sued KMCO in Travis County Court late Tuesday, seeking civil penalties for Texas Clean Air Act violations.
The plant has a 30-year history of noncompliance with environmental laws.
Harris County and Texas state environmental regulators sued KMCO in 1987 for Texas Clean Air Act and Texas Water Code violations at the plant.
The company resolved the lawsuit three years later, signing a permanent injunction in which it admitted no fault, but agreed to stop emitting hazardous levels of particulate matter, noxious odors and fumes.
Similar lawsuits followed in 2008 and 2017 after investigators identified the plant as the source of residents’ complaints of sulfur odors around their homes and black residue in creeks downstream from the plant.
The company settled the 2008 lawsuit by agreeing to pay $50,000 in civil penalties to Harris County and $67,500 to Texas.
Since May 2013, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has fined KMCO $38,000 for two air pollution violations at the plant.
KMCO is set for trial on the 2017 lawsuit on June 17. Assistant Harris County Attorney Rock Owens told Houston’s ABC affiliate on Tuesday he may amend the lawsuit to try to shut the plant down.
“The plant is dangerous and should not reopen,” he said.
Its operations have also been scrutinized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In September 2016, prosecutors brought criminal charges against KMCO in Beaumont Federal Court, for failing to monitor leaks of air pollutants that cause smog from the Crosby plant.
KMCO pleaded guilty to Clean Air Act violations and agreed to pay the government a $3.3 million fine, court records show.
At a news conference Tuesday, Harris County Chief Executive Lina Hidalgo called KMCO’s fatal explosion and fire “disturbing,” especially given that officials are still grappling with the fallout of a fire that erupted at Intercontinental Terminals Company’s chemical plant 20 miles east of downtown Houston on March 19 and burned for three days.
After firefighters extinguished that fire by spraying foam on it, elevated benzene levels detected near the ITC plant led officials to temporarily close schools and highways and order residents to stay indoors.
The Coast Guard closed part of the Houston Ship Channel to ships due to runoff of chemicals and gasoline from the ITC fire.
The Coast Guard has reopened the stretch during daylight hours. Coast Guard Capt. Rich Howes told local media Monday more than 2.5 million gallons of oily water have been removed from the channel.