By Sean Jackson
On July 31, public officials told residents of Baytown, Texas, approximately 50 miles outside of Houston, to shelter in place after a large explosion and fire broke out at the massive ExxonMobil plant. The fire began at 11:00 a.m. in a facility that processes lighter hydrocarbons, such as propylene, propane, and materials needed for making plastics and other industrial products.
The company describes the plant as one of the largest integrated and most technologically advanced refining and petrochemical complexes in the world.. According to Environmental Protection Agency records from 2017 the plant has close to 68 tons of ethylene on site.
Sixty-six of the employees and contractors were examined by medical professionals, with thirty-seven reported in need of receiving first aid for minor injuries. All of them were subsequently released.
Large plumes of black smoke billowed into the sky above the plant, leaving officials from both the city of Baytown, as well as ExxonMobil concerned about contaminants that could adversely affect the breathing of around 5,000 locals.
Dr. Noreen Khan-Mayberry an environmental toxicologist said that it will continue to be important to monitor air and water during and after the chemical fire, stating, “It’s going to come down somewhere. Either the wind is going to push it somewhere else and it’s going to fall somewhere else. It’s going to dissipate and fall. Or it will fall in the same area. So that’s something to keep in mind. That’s why I always ask about wind patterns. How are we looking at wind patterns?”
The shelter in place order was lifted at 3 p.m., but city officials are urging residents to pay attention over the course of the next few days after contaminants that were sent into the air begin to settle back down to earth.
The fire was contained relatively quickly, with most of the flames being extinguished by the evening. While the safety of those involved was of utmost concern, the fumes being put off by the plant played another role in the city telling citizens to shelter in place. After a close examination of the air quality, city officials took to Twitter stating, “The shelter in place has been lifted. Air monitoring has not detected any levels of concern.”
ExxonMobil spokeswoman Natasha Barrett spoke with reporters, saying, “We realize the people who live here in Baytown and our surrounding communities are worried. We understand that and we’ve been working hour after hour to check on things, to monitor air quality.”
ExxonMobil released a statement on Twitter in regards to the incident, stating, “Our first priority remains the safety of people, including our employees, contractors and community. As a precaution our industrial hygiene staff is conducting air quality monitoring at the site and at the fence line, and we are cooperating with regulatory agencies.”
The other regulatory agencies, such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have brought in mobile units to help monitor the situation. Officials say that as of right now no adverse environmental effects have been detected.