February 15 2004

Explosion rocks Bayer plant in Baytown

An explosion Friday night at the Bayer chemical plant in Baytown in west Chambers County rocked parts of Harris County, too, but a plant spokeswoman said there were no injuries and a fire was completely extinguished within two hours.

Cherie Laughlin, the Bayer spokeswoman, said the blast at the plant off Texas 146 occurred about 10:30 p.m. in a unit that makes rigid foam for car parts. The fire was extinguished about 11:45 p.m., she said, and the area where the explosion occurred was in a "cool-down mode." She said seven workers were in the area and all had been accounted for. "Our (emergency team) responded immediately and contained the fire," she said. "It was a loud explosion. ... We received calls from residents in Chambers and Harris counties."

The apparent cause of the explosion was an emission of isopropyl alcohol, Laughlin said. She said the exact cause is under investigation. The fire involved a reactor in a unit that makes foam used for insulation in refrigerators and ice chests, Laughlin told The Baytown Sun. The nearest homes appeared to be at least one-quarter mile from the plant entrance. No residents were evacuated, Laughlin said, but plant officials did ask them to stay inside.

Willie Smith, who lives about a quarter-mile from the plant entrance said relatives were home when the unit exploded. "My daughter said she heard a loud sound like thunder clapping," Smith said. She said the windows rattled, but that was the extent of what her family felt." The plant is just across the Harris County border. According to its Web site, the plant is the flagship of Bayer's U.S. chemical operations, housing four manufacturing groups -- plastics, coatings, ployurethanes and industrial chemicals.

Materials produced at the plant are used for dashboards, bumpers, music CDs and easy chairs. The Web site said the plant, about 30 miles east of Houston, has about 4,000 employees.
Houston Chronicle

Bayer investigating cause of explosion

BAYTOWN - A day after a large explosion and fire at the Bayer chemical plant here alarmed residents for miles around, plant officials said that an investigation of the cause has begun.

The explosion occurred at around 10:35 p.m. Friday in a reactor that produces TDA (or toluene diamine) when one of the feedstocks used in the process ignited. Bayer spokeswoman Cherie Laughlin said the incident occurred during a restarting of the unit after it was shut down for routine maintenance. TDA is an intermediate material used in the production of rigid polyurethane foam materials, often used as insulation in such products as refrigerators and ice chests.

Laughlin said the fire was contained within a 100-square-foot area within the reactor. She said no one was injured, but the damage included structural damage to piping, electrical and auxiliary equipment, as well as smoke damage and water damage from the remediation efforts. "The firewall around the room was severely damaged. The function of the firewall, of course, is to protect our employees and our equipment. So it's obvious today that it performed its function," she said.

On Saturday, an investigation committee consisting of approximately a dozen people had begun trying to determine the cause of the explosion. Members of the committee include chemists, engineers, manufacturing and operations personnel, Laughlin said. Because TDA, one of the company's "flagship products," is manufactured at Bayer plants around the globe, experts from some of those plants have been called in to aid the investigation, she said. The Baytown TDA unit has been in operation since the early 1970s, Laughlin said.

James Tilton, the plant's emergency response manager, said 17 primary emergency responders at the plant were able to contain and extinguish the fire within 20 minutes of the explosion. Tilton, who lives near the plant, said he was called immediately after the explosion and was at the plant's command center within a few minutes. Following the plant's incident response plan, plant officials contacted emergency agencies in the city of Baytown and Chambers County, but advised them that the plant's emergency responders had the fire contained, he said.

"We had not a blazing fire, but we had a hot fire because of the two clean-burning fuels which were involved in the process, which was alcohol and hydrogen," he said. "We were able to evaluate the situation and determine that we really didn't want to put the fire out immediately because of the danger of a flashback fire," he said.

Production personnel shut off the fuel sources to the fire, and the emergency response team doused the fire with water to cool it down before actually putting it out. Plant personnel monitored the collected firefighting water and air around the plant for indications of any chemical leak but found none either Friday night or Saturday, Tilton said. "We got zero readings for those chemicals around the plant site. We sampled our water last night and again today, and we treated that water at our own facility," he said.

Jean Higman, who lives on Cedar Road near the Bayer plant, said that when she first heard the explosion, she thought it might be thunder. As the sound continued, she thought it might be coming from the Cedar Bayou Electric Generating Station, which is actually closer to her home than the Bayer facility.

Higman, who has lived in the area since 1950, said she was particularly concerned because she didn't hear anything about the situation right away on the local emergency radio station. It wasn't until Houston television stations began issuing bulletins about the situation, about half an hour after the explosion, that she learned that there was no immediate danger.

"It concerns me. It concerns everybody in Baytown," Higman said. She said wasn't aware of the CAER (Community Awareness and Emergency Response) line, an automated phone message line operated by the East Harris County Manufacturer's Association. The CAER line can be reached at 281-476-CAER or 281-476-CARE. Laughlin said Bayer had posted a message on the CAER line within 10 minutes of the explosion.

Toni McBride, who lives not far away from Higman and whose backyard looks toward the Bayer plant, said she also thought the explosion was thunder at first, except "the whole house shook." Two of her sons and some friends ran outside and could see flames and smoke from the fire from the backyard. McBride called her husband, Burl, who was at his job as an operator at the Sunoco Chemical plant in La Porte.

"I told her to let me do some checking," Burl McBride said. Listening to the emergency frequency scanners at his plant, he learned fairly quickly what was happening and was able to reassure his wife. McBride, the son of a former Baytown police chief, said he wasn't particularly concerned about the possibility of a large explosion. "You can't worry about that - that's part of life around here," he said.
By Ken Fountain, Baytown Sun, Published February 15, 2004