SEABROOK, Texas—A huge explosion rocked the American Acryl plant near Seabrook Wednesday, shaking buildings and prompting a number of shelter-in-place orders.
It happened around 8:45 a.m. in the 12100 block of Port Road at Highway 146 in Pasadena.
Two plant employees were taken to the hospital for observation. One has since been released. Officials said the other is being treated for possible inhalation injuries.
All other plant employees were accounted for Wednesday afternoon, and there were no reports of any other injuries in the community.
A thick, black cloud of smoke was visible for miles over the area after the explosion.
The smoke drifted to the south and east, prompting Clear Creek ISD, Dickinson ISD, Kemah, Seabrook and League City to issue shelter-in-place orders.
All of the orders were lifted a few hours after the blast.
Some area mayors complained that they weren't notified soon enough after the explosion, delaying their ability to make decisions on whether to evacuate or issue shelter-in-place advisories.
"We got that Carecall about 40 minutes after the event. By then, we all had to make our decisions," said Taylor Lakes Mayor Natalie O’Neill.
After the initial Carecall, municipalities are supposed to get an emergency notification fax from the plant identifying the danger level, the chemicals involved and whether the spill was in the air or water. Wednesday, it never came.
Aerial footage showed gaping holes in a plant tank and debris scattered around blackened equipment at the facility.
Officials said the fire was out and the site was secure by noon.
Viewers in Bacliff, San Leon, Clear Lake, Dickinson, La Marque, Texas City, League City, Seabrook, Pearland and Friendswood all reported hearing and feeling the blast.
"The explosion was strong enough to shake our building. We are located in Baytown by the Hwy 99 and FM 1405 intersection," one viewer e-mail read.
"FYI-I live in League City (Hwy96 near 146) and I felt and heard the explosion from there. It was loud and clear. Thought it was a home explosion b/c it sounded so close," another viewer reported.
"I’m directly south of the plant. I had just sat down at my computer, by a north window, when I heard the BOOM then felt the percussion," a viewer reported.
"This explosion took place just around the corner from our office. It violently shook our building. Thinking it was a car that had ran into the building, we ran outside to see the 1st plume of smoke from this explosion," viewer Jacob Varisco said in an e-mail.
Officials said the cause of the explosion is not yet known.
A viewer in Seabrook reported a chemical smell permeating the air around 9:40 a.m.
The American Acryl plant makes acrylic acid, a building block for plastics. It's used in products like diapers, nail polish and household cleaners.
A Shoreacres official said the chemical that was released after the blast was toluene.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, toluene is a respiratory tract irritant. It’s described as clear and colorless and has a distinctive smell.
The ATSDR said toluene can affect the nervous system. In low to moderate levels, it can cause tiredness, confusion, weakness, memory loss, nausea, intoxication, loss of appetite, loss of hearing and color vision loss. The symptoms usually stop as soon as exposure ends.
High levels of toluene can affect the kidneys, and inhaling high levels in a short time can cause unconsciousness and even death, the ATSDR said.
The effects of toluene in children are similar to those seen in adults.
Emergency officials were monitoring the air in the communities around the plant, but they said there didn’t appear to be a lingering problem.
A spokesperson for OSHA said American Acryl has a good safety record.
But 11 News did a little digging and discovered that OSHA has never done a single inspection of the site.
The plant opened there in 1997.
Records show the EPA fined the company in March after it had gone three consecutive quarters as what the agency terms a "high-priority violator" of the Federal Clean Air Act.
OSHA said the plant has never had an incident before, so they never inspected it.