Houston residents were awakened early this morning by a thunderous boom followed by smoke-filled, orange-tinted skies. The boom, felt by residents in the Clear Lake suburb at least 20 miles away, came from Exxon’s Refining and Petrochemical Facilities in Baytown.
Much of the facility burst into flames, sparking a raging inferno that lit up the Texas night. At least four contractors were injured and three were airlifted to a hospital. according to Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. Two of those workers were reportedly treated for burns, while one was being treated for injuries from a 12-meter fall, according to local point of sale KTRK.
Sources told Reuters that the fire and apparent explosiondescribed by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office as a “major industrial accident” — started in a hydrotreatment unit that had been shut down the previous day due to a leak in the bypass line. A spokesman for the sheriff’s office told the New York Times the source of the fire is still under investigation.
“We came home and we heard the roar of the fire in the backyard and then in the house,” said local resident Maria Fillmore. told local point of sale KPRC. “We’d seen vehicles flying into the Exxon plant and we’d seen agents come down.”
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Air quality concerns arose almost immediately, but at the time of writing there are no signs that air quality has fallen to unsafe levels for local residents, KTRK said. Residents flocked to Sheriff Gonzalez’s Twitter account for clarity on whether or not to evacuate their homes or shelter. Those concerns are justified.
The sprawling 3,400-acre Baytown facility houses a chemical and olefins plant and the nation’s fourth-largest oil refinery producing the company says is capable of processing 584,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The site was the source of another fire in 2019 in which as many as 37 workers were injured. In that case, residents were called to shelter for hours. The plant also released thousands of kilograms of carbon dioxide during last winter’s blackouts in Texas, and it is subject to a lawsuit of $14.25 million for violating the Clean Air Act. Exxon isn’t the only polluting neighbor in the area. Petrochemical installations line the Houston Ship Channel, of which Baytown is near the mouth, making it one of the Most Toxic Places in the US
Despite extensive reports of residents thumping, loud chattering and clapping for miles, Exxon has carefully avoided using the term “explosion” to describe the event. Exxon has a rack early in the morning claimed a “fire” had occurred at their facility around 1 a.m. local time. Company tweeted that it had finally extinguished the fire shortly before 9:30 a.m. local time.
“Our number one priority is people in the community and in our facilities, Exxon said. “Air monitoring continues along the perimeter. The information available at this time shows no adverse impacts.”
Earther contacted Exxon to seek clarification on what exactly happened, but did not get anything back right away.
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