Texas officials issue shelter-in-place order after chemical plant explosion
By JUAN A. LOZANO AND BEATRICE DUPUY
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.
Authorities issued the shelter-in-place order for residents within a one-mile radius of a chemical plant fire in Shepherd on Wednesday. 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. The owner of the plant said the explosion was caused by an accident involving a forklift, and was under investigation.
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 shared on Facebook that the plume could be heading toward the Livingston area.
Local authorities warned residents to shelter in place and to shut off their HVAC air conditioning systems.
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 the fire was caused by “a folk lift incident” but did not provide any other details. He 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.”
U.S. Highway 59 remained closed in both directions Wednesday afternoon between Shepherd and Livingston. It was not immediately known when the roadway would be reopened.
Air monitoring that was being done in the area had not detected any hazardous chemicals, Eldridge said.
The shelter-in-place order was still in effect Wednesday afternoon, though the visible plumes of smoke had disappeared with the fire being brought under control.
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.
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