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Texas Chemical Plant Fire Update

Aug 3, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

While dangerous emissions were not found in the air surrounding the El Dorado Chemical plant in Bryan, Texas, thousands of residents were forced from their homes, reported the Associated Press (AP), citing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The evacuation was initiated because of the risk that ammonium nitrate—a chemical used in the manufacture of explosives—at the 11,216-square-foot plant could spark an explosion; the fire was still smoldering late last week.

By 5:00 p.m. Thursday, 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 Friday, except for a small area surrounding the El Dorado Chemical plant. According to the Houston Chronicle via the Associated Press, the fire destroyed the warehouse and closed the main campus at nearby Texas A&M University.

As we reported last week, the fire at the El Dorado Chemical Company plant broke out around noon Thursday. 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. At least 34 people—including 20 emergency responders—were injured, with victims treated at two area hospitals for eye irritations, respiratory ailments, and smoke inhalation.

The Houston Chronicle reported that John Salsman of the Brazos County emergency management, said that a welding job in the warehouse seems to be the culprit; the warehouse mixes and packages chemicals, such as those used in the manufacture of fertilizer.

Lisa Wheeler, with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. said its Waco regional office “will continue to monitor the cleanup efforts. The materials will be disposed of and cleaned up by the owner," quoted the AP.

The AP also reported that Bryan Assistant Fire Chief Randy McGregor told the Bryan-College Station Eagle that 570 tons of ammonium nitrate, as well as other chemicals, were in the warehouse at the time of the fire, saying that the evacuation was appropriate. "We wanted to err on the side of caution," McGregor said, quoted the AP.

"Everything that would burn is burned. There's no physical structure around it at all. You physically can't see any outline of a warehouse," said El Dorado vice president, John Carver, quoted the AP. The building had been appraised at $956,180, said the AP, citing Brazos County tax records. Once the area is cleared of debris from the fire, Carver said a new site would be operational within 90 days, reported the AP.

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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