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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

 

Wetter living through chemistry

by Tom Sullivan


Port Arthur, TX refinery.

As the water rises in Houston and human casualties mount, just what is happening at the many chemical plants and refineries in the Houston area? Not much good, you can bet.

Amidst the rolling disaster, the Houston Chronicle is still managing to glug out some news:

Flood waters from Hurricane Harvey created an emergency situation that could trigger explosions at the Arkema chemical plant northeast of Houston in Crosby.

Late Monday night, the facility lost power from both its primary supply and its backup generators due to flooding. Employees moved highly volatile organic peroxides into back-up containers to keep them cool. If this class of chemical gets too hot, it can cause fires or explosions.

"At this time, while we do not believe there is any imminent danger, the potential for a chemical reaction leading to a fire and/or explosion withing[sic] the site confines is real," Arkema spokeswoman Janet Smith said on Tuesday.
The New Republic reported on Monday:
“Unbearable” petrochemical smells are reportedly drifting into Houston. As historic rainfall and flooding continue to pound America’s fourth-most populated city, residents of Houston’s industrial fence-line communities are reporting strong gas- and chemical-like smells coming from the many refineries and chemical plants nearby. “I’ve been smelling them all night and off and on this morning,” said Bryan Parras, an activist at the grassroots environmental justice group TEJAS. Parras, who lives and works in Houston’s East End, on Sunday said some residents are experiencing “headaches, sore throat, scratchy throat and itchy eyes.”

I've spent enough time in chemical plants that my damaged sense of smell might not even pick it up.


The online magazine ChemInfo has a brief report on the wider impact:
According to a report in ICIS, the plants that decided to take precautionary measures and close included ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery and chemicals plant, Celanese’s methanol operations in Pasadena, American Acryl Bayport’s acrylic acid plant along with refineries owned by Phillips 66, Shell, Petrobras and others.

Chevron has also shut down its petrochemical complex in Cedar Bayou, which is one of the country’s biggest chemical production sites. According to the Houston Chronicle, Chevron plans to keep the complex, which is in the midst of a $6 billion expansion, closed until Sept. 6.

According to Bloomberg Intelligence, the plant closures have impacted 37 percent of the country's production capacity for chlorine and caustic soda. Analysts also estimate that about 40 percent of the U.S.'s ethylne [sic] production has also been disrupted by Harvey.
Gas prices here spiked 16 cents overnight yesterday, so you'd better run out and stock up on chlorine and ethylene before those prices go through the roof too. If plants like Arkema don't shut down properly, they could have no roofs to go through.

Acrylonitrile (ACN), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), ethylene oxide (EtO)? All made in the Houston area. Most are chemical processing intermediates, although hospitals use ethylene oxide gas to sterilize surgical instruments that cannot take the heat from an autoclave — because EtO kills pretty much everything. And it's rather explosive.

Reuters reports that in Port Arthur, Texas, the largest refinery in the country is shutting down:
The refinery’s owner, Motiva Enterprises [MOTIV.UL], said the refinery was operating at 40 percent capacity on Tuesday evening. Earlier in the day, the refinery was operating at 60 percent of its capacity, the company said.

Energy industry intelligence service Genscape said the refinery was using its safety flare system on Tuesday night. Flares can be a signal of the shutdown of a unit or units at a refinery.

The flaring triggered messages on social media of a fire at the refinery.
Motiva reports no fires on Tuesday.

I've always said if work dried up here (no pun intended), I could always find some in Houston and environs. But I've managed to stay away, thank you. A colleague tells a tale of doing field work at a plant near Houston when a pressure safety device blew on a vessel nearby. A cloud of orange gas shot into the air and drifted into an adjacent open structure. Men working inside rushed to the handrails and puked their guts out.

Too much information?

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