Worker Killed in 2nd Texas Chemical Fire in 2 Weeks, Federal Agency to Investigate

April 4, 2019 Updated: April 4, 2019

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board announced on April 3 that it will investigate a fire at a Houston area chemical plant as the facility’s operator identified the worker killed in the blaze.

James Earl Mangum was killed in the Tuesday fire at a KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, about 25 miles northeast of Houston, a company spokesman said. The two other workers who were injured during the blaze remain in critical condition. Their identities were not released.

An autopsy found that Mangum’s accidental death was caused by “sharp force injuries” that cut a major artery and vein in his right arm, a spokesman for Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences said.

The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical incidents, said it will join other agencies probing the cause of the deadly fire. It is also investigating the March 17 blaze at a petrochemical storage facility in nearby Deer Park .

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

All operations at the KMCO plant are suspended indefinitely and the site is under control of Texas fire officials, according to the company.

Fire investigators haven’t yet been able to enter the plant because of ongoing clean up and emergency operations, said Rachel Moreno of the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office.

County officials said Wednesday that ongoing air monitoring shows no health risks to the area around the plant.

Second Chemical Fire in 2 Weeks

The fire erupted about two weeks after a March 17 blaze at a petrochemical storage facility in Deer Park , located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Crosby. That fire at a facility owned by Intercontinental Terminals Company burned for days and triggered air quality warnings. Crosby also is where an Arkema chemical plant was inundated by water during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Some chemicals eventually caught fire and partially exploded.

“It is disturbing and it is problematic that we’re seeing this incident in a facility, especially on the heels of” the fire in Deer Park, said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top administrator.

Samantha Galle lives less than a mile away from the plant and said she heard and felt an explosion Tuesday.

“It shook everybody’s house around here,” the 23-year-old said.

Gonzalez said a transfer line at the KMCO plant ignited in the area of a tank of isobutylene—a flammable colorless gas used in the production of high octane gasoline—which then caught on fire.

The fire spread to a nearby warehouse where dry chemicals are stored.

Moreno said the Environmental Protection Agency has been testing air samples from the area around the plant and has not found any harmful readings.

Worker Justin Trahan told Houston television station KPRC that he heard “some panic on the radio” but no alarms sounding before the plant caught fire.

“We didn’t think anything of it—we didn’t think it was anything severe,” he said.

Trahan said employees began running after “the tank ignited.”

He said that he and other colleagues had to jump over a fence to escape because all the gates were locked.

Smoke rises from fire at KMCO plant
A plume of smoke rises over the site of a fire at the KMCO plant in Crosby, northeast of Houston, Texas, on April 2, 2019. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Pilar Davis, a product manager with KMCO, said none of the emergency evacuation points at the plant were blocked during the fire.

Davis said the fire initially ignited with isobutylene but was fueled by ethanol and ethyl acrylate. All three are chemicals and solvents used to make fuel additives at the plant.

Davis declined to comment on the worker who was killed and the two who were injured, only saying they were part of KMCO’s operations department.

KMCO, which was founded in 1975, is a chemical company that offers coolant and brake fluid products and chemicals for the oilfield industry.

The Crosby, Sheldon and Channelview school districts asked students and staff to shelter in place at all their campuses. But later Tuesday afternoon, all three districts lifted those orders to shelter in place.

KMCO chemical plant in Crosby
This aerial photo shows the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, about 25 miles northeast of Houston, Texas, on April 2, 2019. (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle via AP)

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said that it has dispatched emergency response personnel to conduct an initial assessment of the fire.

Foley said his company’s number one priority “is safety and compliance.”

“We have a long track record of investing in the people, the systems and the assets to operate safely,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Texas Attorney General’s office filed a petition in state district court in Austin on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The petition seeks a permanent injunction, civil penalties and reasonable attorney fees, court costs, along with recovery of investigative costs.

KMCO has had environmental violations in the past, according to a review of records.

In 2016, KMCO’s corporate agents pleaded guilty to a federal criminal charge of violating the Clean Air Act. A plea agreement document stated that a plant employee made false entries in logs of air testing of tanks that were known to be leaking chemicals. Another employee then used those falsified logs to submit reports to the federal and state environmental authorities. The document says the violation went on between 2008 and 2012.

A year earlier, the EPA cited KMCO for failing to comply with regulations on its risk-management plan for the plant, but settled with the plant for a $2,700 penalty.

Texas has served the plant with three notices of violation of a federal clean-air law since last August, the EPA website shows. Harris County had obtained an injunction against KMCO in 2009 that required the firm to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and give investigators easy access to the plant and prompt notification of releases.

By Juan A. Lozano

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