Workers Say Owner of Texas Plant Knew of Blast Risk

This aerial photo shows firefighters spraying water on a fire at the KMCO chemical plant on April 2, 2019 in Crosby, Texas. (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle via AP)

HOUSTON (CN) – A sunny, mild morning in Greater Houston was interrupted by an explosion last week that could be felt for miles around. The area was literally rocked by another chemical plant explosion – this time at the KMCO plant in Crosby, an industrial town just northeast of Houston.

Contractors Aurelio Campos, Jose Flores and Noe Flores were at the facility last Tuesday when a chemical storage tank exploded, according to a lawsuit they filed Monday in Harris County District Court alleging KMCO knew there was a leak in one of its storage tanks prior to the explosion.

The blast, which killed one worker and critically injured two others, occurred around 10:45 a.m., and was contained and extinguished by teams of firefighters from Crosby and surrounding counties later that evening. Though a shelter-in-place order was issued for nearby schools and homes within a mile of the facility, no related injuries have been reported besides those suffered by plant workers.

According to the complaint brought by lead attorney Lawrence Wilson with the Houston-based Lanier Law Firm, a storage tank of isobutylene, a flammable material used in other industrial chemicals, sprung a leak via a check valve that was unable to sustain the pressure at which the chemical was contained. Once the initial explosion occurred, vapors spread and ignited other parts of the facility.

The workers allege that although the company was aware of the leak, it did not immediately sound alarms or initiate evacuation procedures.

“Only after a large quantity of isobutylene had been release and ignition became imminent was a call made to evacuate,” the seven-page complaint states.

Though this is not the first complaint filed against KMCO since the explosion – a Texas Clean Air Act lawsuit was also filed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – it is the first to claim the company was aware of the leak prior to the explosion.

KMCO President and CEO John Foley issued a statement Monday, but didn’t directly address the allegations in Monday’s lawsuit.

“KMCO is working in close cooperation with the Fire Marshal, federal Chemical Safety Board and OSHA investigators to determine the accurate timeline and cause of last week’s tragic incident,” Foley said. “I can assure our team and the community that no investigation will be more thorough than our own. But until facts are known, any legal complaints should be considered unverified.”

Foley later clarified that the plaintiffs were not direct employees of KMCO.

“While the company is aware that some outside contractors have made legal claims, none of the third-party companies they work for have informed us of any alleged injury. To our knowledge, no KMCO employee has filed a lawsuit as a result of the incident,” Foley said.

The plaintiffs’ allegations stemmed from a radio conversation that a nonparty worker heard shortly before the explosion, attorney Wilson said in an interview Monday evening. Wilson said the worker heard someone at the plant talking about a “suspected leak,” and then workers were directed to leave the facility.

The plaintiffs told Wilson they were waved off by other workers just seconds before the explosion, which Wilson said was a suggestion that KMCO was aware of the leak prior to the explosion, but the attorney clarified he had no documentation to corroborate the theory yet.

The three workers seek punitive damages against defendant KMCO LLC for negligence regarding their unspecified injuries from the explosion.

The KMCO blast was the second at a Houston-area chemical plant in just 17 days. A recent fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, 20 miles southeast of downtown Houston, was reportedly caused by a leak in a pipe containing naptha, the main ingredient in kerosene.

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