HOUSTON (AP) — A massive fire at a chemical plant in rural Texas on Wednesday sent a plume of black smoke into the sky as officials closed down a local highway and ordered residents to take shelter for several hours.
Authorities had asked residents within a one-mile radius of a chemical plant fire in Shepherd as well as those in surrounding communities to shelter in place for about five hours on Wednesday and lifted the order early Wednesday afternoon. Shepherd is a mainly rural area about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Houston.
Officials in San Jacinto County said the explosion took place at Sound Resource Solutions, a company that recycles and repackages various chemicals. Officials said a preliminary investigation found the explosion happened when an employee noticed a container leaking with chemicals and tried to use a forklift to lift the container, after which there was an ignition. The investigation was still ongoing.
San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers said that officials began receiving calls shortly after 8 a.m. about an explosion at the company’s facility.
Capers said one employee suffered minor burns to his body and was taken to a hospital, where he was in stable condition. He said initial reports indicated the chemicals involved in the fire were flammable liquids, including possibly diesel and turpentine.
The fire was contained by Wednesday afternoon, said San Jacinto County Emergency Management coordinator Emmitt Eldridge. Fire crews had worked with two ladder trucks to put out the fire with foam.
The solvents produced in the factory are used to make glue and paint remover, the Polk County Office of Emergency Management said in a statement. The agency warned that chemicals from the plant are toxic and can cause eye and skin irritation.
Shortly after the fire at the plant, a large plume of smoke from the facility could be seen in videos captured by residents.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office warned in a Facebook post that the plume might have headed toward the Livingston area.
Local authorities told residents to shelter in place and to shut off their HVAC air conditioning systems. Those warnings were lifted hours later.
“We’ve had monitors out all day. As of right now, there hasn’t been anything detected in the air,” Eldridge said.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would continue to monitor the air through Wednesday evening and would begin working with the chemical plant's owner on cleaning up the site, said agency spokesperson Ryan Vise.
Once the fire was brought under control, the large plume of black smoke that could be seen for miles disappeared. Eldridge said local fire crews would remain on site Wednesday evening to monitor any possible flare-ups.
Capers said 19 of the 37 employees who work for Sound Resource Solutions were on duty at the time of the explosion.
A private school with 31 children near the site of the explosion was safely evacuated through a pasture and the students have been reunited with their parents, Capers said.
Geoff Harfield, president of Sound Resource Solutions, said he was grateful that all of his employees are safe.
“I’m not worried about the business. All my people went home. That’s what I care about,” Harfield said.
He said that the employee that was injured is “doing good” and should be back with his family by Wednesday evening.
Harfield said his company has been operating since 2014 and while they operate “in a dangerous environment,” he and his employees are trained to handle hazardous chemicals he described as "the type of material you probably have under your kitchen sink.”
“We got a lot of work to do to figure out the incident itself,” Harfield said. “And I know people want answers. We’re going to get you answers, not speculation.”
U.S. Highway 59 remained closed in both directions Wednesday afternoon between Shepherd and Livingston. It was expected to reopen sometime Wednesday evening, officials said.
Harfield said the company would cooperate with state and local environmental regulators and ”we’ll make sure that any remediation work that needs to be done is going to be done in the right way so that there’s no affect on the community that we’ve known for 14 years.”
Dupuy reported from New York.
Juan A. Lozano And Beatrice Dupuy, The Associated Press