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Explosion and fire at Exxon petrochemical plant in Texas injures 37

01 August 2019

An explosion and  fire at an Exxon Mobil petrochemical plant in Baytown on the Houston Ship Canal injured 37 people and sent a thick column of smoke over the area. Jason Duncan, the plant manager of the Olefins unit where the incident occurred, said most of the injured suffered minor burns and none had to be hospitalised.

Baytown facility - Image: Exxon Mobil
Baytown facility - Image: Exxon Mobil

According to the Houston Chronicle, this is the second fire this year at an Exxon Mobil facility in Baytown, a city of 75,000 in Harris County. The cause was not immediately known, although the company said the blaze began with an explosion.

The company shut down the Olefins unit - which processes propane and propylene - and isolated the fuel that fed the fire, Duncan said. The fire apparently burned residual fuel contained in a large column.

The fire was extinguished by company employees, who were later joined by firefighters and equipment from the city.

Residents around the plant were told to close windows and doors, turn off air conditioning and remain in their homes or offices. Schools in the area kept students indoors.

"We are cooperating with regulatory agencies. We deeply regret any disruption or inconvenience that this incident may have caused the community," Exxon spokeswoman Sarah Nordin said in a statement.

Available air monitoring information from the inside the Baytown Olefins Plant’s grounds and outside monitoring sources recorded no adverse impacts, Duncan said.

The Baytown complex employs about 7,000 people across four manufacturing sites that cover almost 14 square kilometres. It sits alongside the Houston Ship Channel, the nation’s largest and busiest energy port, and includes a 500,000 barrel a day capacity refinery.

Exxon last year completed the construction of a multi-billion-dollar ethane cracker at the Baytown Olefins Plant. 

Exxon Mobil is already defending a lawsuit filed by Harris County alleging environmental violations stemming from a fire at a Baytown facility in March. Fires also occurred in March at the Intercontinental Terminals plant in Deer Park and in April at the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, which killed one worker.

A Houston Chronicle investigation from 2016 found that a major chemical incident occurs once every six weeks in the greater Houston area. Environmental and neighbourhood groups said the latest fire again demonstrated the need for stronger enforcement of safety and environmental rules.

Exxon’s three Baytown plants have repeatedly been cited for violating regulations, with limited consequences.

The facility has violated the Clean Air Act for the last three years, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. The EPA and the state of Texas fined the company a combined $3.8 million last year after the federal agency’s investigation found that Exxon Mobil was not properly operating or monitoring flares at facilities in Texas and Louisiana.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fined the facility in 2016 and 2018 for air pollution violations.

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