Dallas Morning News | July 28, 2005
BY DEBRA DENNIS AND JEFF MOSIER
FORT WORTH, Texas - (KRT) - A chain of explosions rocked a Fort Worth chemical company Thursday, injuring four people, shaking buildings and prompting the evacuation of some local businesses and schools.
As the fire burned itself out Thursday evening, plans for a large-scale clean up at Valley Solvent & Chemicals were in the works, monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Fort Worth health officials said the risk to residents' health was small, but advised those nearby to stay indoors with windows closed and air conditioners off.
Plant workers told authorities they heard an explosion and then noticed a fire about 1:15 p.m. near a tractor-trailer that had just pulled into the plant to deliver chemicals, said Fort Worth Fire Department Lt. Kent Worley. Fire officials believe the fire started accidentally, around the 18-wheeler unloading methanol.
The resulting plume of smoke could be seen in Dallas, about 30 miles away.
Three people with burn injuries were transported to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth and Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. A fourth person went to Harris Methodist Fort Worth Hospital with a back injury. None were thought to be critical.
The fire raged for hours Thursday afternoon in and around more than two dozen large metal and plastic tanks that contained 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of methanol, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, ethanol and other chemicals.
"We are blessed that we had no loss of life," said Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief.
Nearby business owners said the explosions reverberated through their metal industrial buildings.
"At first I thought it was thunder. There was a loud explosion - a boom - and then there were four to five big claps," said Carl Stewart, co-owner of a landscaping business about 1,000 yards away.
Shortly after the eruptions, Stewart turned to his television monitor and clicked on a surveillance camera overlooking part of his industrial complex.
He saw men running from a nearby building and into a parking lot. Two men, he said, later ran back to the site of the explosion, presumably to see if anybody needed help.
"When I saw it on the screen, I knew it was a chemical plant. Everyday I think about being too close to that plant," he said.
William Chappell, an employee with Cow Town ReadyMix Concrete, said he narrowly escaped injury or death in the explosion after a large chemical tank shot in the sky and nearly struck him. He was a driving a Bobcat on land adjacent to the plant when the blast happened. Only a metal cage on top of the equipment, he said, stopped the debris. "I could feel the heat on my back," he said
Fire officials had to stand back from the blaze due to uncertainty about what was inside. They called in additional trucks from local airports to help spray foam on the building.
"The burning could go on for hours, possibly until tomorrow morning," Worley said. "We will let it burn."
Frank Espino, regional director for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in Fort Worth, said Valley Solvents had last been inspected in January 2004. He said a cursory inspection of the file didn't show any problems.
"We look at their hazardous waste handling, processing and documentation," he said.
Espino said the agency has two concerns in the wake of the blast: the air quality and the potentially hazardous water runoff from the site.
Dr. Elvin Adams, the Fort Worth Health Authority, said officials had identified 30 different chemicals at the site in 37 different tanks. He downplayed the risk for any serious health effects Thursday.
The chemicals burned hot and fast, he said. Health officials recommended that residents stay indoors primarily because of the soot in the air, which could cause red eyes and burning lungs - a typical reaction breathing smoke.
Paula McKinney, who oversees the program in Texas that collects data from businesses that store chemicals, said Valley Solvents lives up to its name - almost all of the substances on site are paint strippers, mineral spirits and the like.
Although the chemical reported some large quantities in 2004, such as 46,000 pounds of methyl ethyl ketone, there was only one chemical listed that is considered extremely hazardous, particularly to first responders: sulfuric acid.
McKinney said the company appeared to be going above and beyond the legal requirements for what are called Tier II Reports, submitting some data in electronic form.
Robbie Robinson of the Tarrant County Emergency Management Services said that the company had provided Tier II reports and other documents called material safety data sheets so that they were on hand in the emergency command center Thursday.
Elizabeth Todd, a spokeswoman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's regional office that includes Texas, said the agency was on the scene and would initiate an investigation into whether the company was in compliance with safety and health standards.
"Until the investigation is complete, there wouldn't be any information available," she said. "They have by law up to six months to investigate."
Investigators deconstructing a fire involving chemicals or solvents would look into whether an emergency evacuation plan was in place and whether it was implemented, she said.
"We would look at the handling and storage of flammable liquids and naturally to try to find out the cause of the accident. Was the company in compliance with industry standards?" Todd said.
Officials with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth said they monitored the wind in the area throughout the afternoon for local emergency management officials.
Relatively low wind speeds of about 13 mph allowed the plume of smoke and any debris to be carried aloft and dispersed. A higher wind speed likely would have fanned the flames and carried embers and any potential toxins much faster, possibly causing secondary fires.
Valley Solvents' Web site said the privately owned company, which has been in business for 53 years, is a wholesale industrial solvents and chemicals distributor offering a large number of chemicals for various industrial uses.
Valley Solvents' President Bill Davis, en route to the scene from South Texas, said all workers were evacuated and accounted for. About 17 work at the plant.