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Texas Chemical Plant Fire Prompts Evacuations

Jul 31, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

A fire at the El Dorado Chemical plant in Bryan, Texas, while under control, continued to smolder today.  At least 1,000 people are still evacuated because of the risk that ammonium nitrate at the plant could spark an explosion.

The fire at the El Dorado Chemical Co. plant broke out around noon yesterday. Right now, it looks like a welding spark ignited the blaze.  The fire produced a plume of smoke that extended up to 60 miles from the plant. Because of the toxicity of the chemicals involved, fire crews were forced to allow the blaze to burn itself out.

The fire injured at least 34 people, including 20 emergency responders.  Victims were treated at two area hospitals for eye irritation, respiratory ailments and smoke inhalation.

The City of Bryan was under a mandatory evacuation order most of yesterday, as was part of Brazos County north of FM 60.  The roads into Bryan were closed.  Classes at Texas A&M's main campus were also canceled, but resumed today.

By 5:00 p.m. yesterday, the plume of smoke produced by the chemical fire had grown smaller, but officials said the danger was "far from over".   The evacuation order for Bryan was lifted last night, except for  a small area surrounding the El Dorado Chemical Co. plant.  As of this morning, around 1,000 people were still being kept out.

The El Dorado Chemical Co. uses ammonium nitrate to make fertilizer.  The highly combustible chemical can also be used to make explosives, and can be detonated under conditions of heat and pressure.  The possibility that the fire at El Dorado Chemical could have sparked a massive ammonium nitrate explosion was very real.  Inhalation of ammonium nitrate fumes can cause irritation to the respiratory tract.  Symptoms may include coughing, sore throat, and shortness of breath.

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