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11 Hurt in Texas Plastics Plant Explosion; "An Unreasonable Woman' Not Surprised
Published on Friday, October 7, 2005 by the Houston Chronicle
11 Hurt in Plastics Plant Explosion
Cause of accident at Formosa facility in South Texas is unknown
by Dina Cappiello and Eric Hanson
 

LAVACA - In an increasingly familiar scene along the Texas coast, black smoke and flames streamed from a Point Comfort industrial plant Thursday, following an explosion that injured at least 11 workers.

Two workers were taken to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.  Roger Green, 30, was in serious condition with burns over 36 percent of his body. John Hunt, 45,  had burns on his arms and was listed in fair condition.


Black smoke billows into the sky after an explosion and fire at the Formosa Plastics plant at Point Comfort on Thursday. Diane Wilson, an activist and local shrimper who has protested against the company — a campaign that culminated in August 2002, when she chained herself to one of the plant's towers — said a serious incident was bound to happen. (Chronicle Photo/Steve Ueckert)
The other injured workers were treated and released, according to Rob Thibault,  a spokesman for the plant's operator, Formosa Plastics Corp.

The blast at the Formosa  plant was the third to strike a Texas industrial facility this year and the second to hit one of the Taiwan-based company's U.S. facilities in 17 months.

In March, BP's Texas City refinery burst into flames, killing 15 and injuring 170 people in an accident that recently brought the company a $21 million fine. In July, BP's refinery exploded a second time, forcing local residents to remain indoors but causing no injuries.

Witnesses reported at least three blasts around 3:30 p.m. in an area of the sprawling 1,800-acre Formosa complex known as the Olefins 2 unit, where the building blocks of plastics are made, said Patrick Pastuck, a spokesman at the company's Livingston, N.J., headquarters.

The plant, Formosa's largest, employs about 1,500 people, Pastuck said.

The cause of the explosions and fire was unknown. A company spokesman on the scene, Jim Shephard, said damage to the unit was severe.

Officials had ordered residents in the surrounding area to stay indoors and avoid the smoke. About 50 students still inside an elementary school across the street from the plant were transferred to another school in Port Lavaca.

Authorities also barricaded nearby roads, including the Port Lavaca causeway, Texas 35 and FM 1593.

The fire was extinguished after about three hours, but county officials did not lift the shelter-in-place recommendation until just before 9 p.m.

Preliminary tests of the air quality hours after the explosion detected no toxic fumes, local authorities said.

The causeway was reopened about 8:30 p.m.

Following the blasts, dozens of workers fled the plant, running across a field or driving to James Food Mart in Point Comfort, where they got water and delivered it to plant employees stuck in traffic on the closed roads. Shelters for workers who could not get home were opened at the Bauer Community Center and Methodist Church in Port Lavaca.

Employees gathered at the community center Thursday night described hearing over company radios that a pipe had ruptured. That was followed by a rumbling sound, and alarms signaling that they should evacuate.

"As we were going out, the fire got worse and worse, it got bigger and bigger," said John Hodges, an instrument maintenance supervisor at the plant. "It seemed like gas escaping, and then big fireballs with three, four, five explosions."

Safety officials en route

State and local officials, in addition to federal environmental and occupational enforcement personnel, will perform further assessments today. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board was sending a team to launch an investigation.

In addition to the Point Comfort explosion, the CSB also is investigating an April 2004 blast that killed four workers and injured six at a Formosa plant in Illiopolis, Ill. The company's other two U.S. facilities are located in Delaware City, Del., and Baton Rouge, La.

In December 1998, a blast rocked the Point Comfort plant's ethylene dichloride unit, rattling windows as far as 35 miles away and injuring 26 workers.

Activist 'not surprised'

Diane Wilson, an activist and local shrimper who has protested against the company — a campaign that culminated in August 2002, when she chained herself to one of the plant's towers — said a serious incident was bound to happen.

"When Formosa was building this plant we had so much evidence about the shoddy way it was put together and the poor quality of the work," said Wilson, who was in New York City promoting her first book An Unreasonable Woman, about her fight against large petrochemical companies. "I'm not surprised at all."

Last April, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fined the facility $150,000 for violations of air pollution laws that included releases of toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride.

Over the past decade, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has inspected the Point Comfort plant a dozen times, five of them resulting in violations, OSHA online records show.

In 1994, the company completed a $1.5 billion expansion, building its first olefins unit. In 1997, the plant underwent a second $1 billion expansion, in which it constructed a second olefins unit — the part of the plant that erupted Thursday.

Chronicle reporters Kevin Moran, Anne Marie Kilday, Armando Villafranca and Lise Olsen contributed to this report, along with the Associated Press.

© 2005 Houston Chronicle

Diane Wilson, a fourth generation shrimper turned environmental activist from Seadrift, Texas will be the keynote speaker at the Bioneers conference in San Rafael, Oct 14, 15. Diane has written a book, just out, called An Unreasonable Woman.

The book tells the story of how she took on some of the biggest chemical companies in Texas--FORMOSA PLASTICS, Alcoa, and Dow Owned Union Carbide-- for their illegal and dangerous handling of highly toxic chemicals that have poisoned Lavaca Bay and decimated the fishing industry there. Formosa Plastics, a multinational Taiwanese chemical giant, was especially targeted for covering up spills, silencing workers, flouting the EPA and dumping highly toxic chemicals into the air, land and sea. Worse yet, they won approval (along with tax abatements) to expand their site in Calhoun County, TEXAS-- an area already identified as the most toxic in the country by a 1989 EPA report. Her life has been threatened repeatedly and officials flatly refuse to obey the law; the affable congressman who represents her district has been bought. Local and state politicians don't come out looking too good in this book, not Tom DeLay (no surprise here) nor Ann Richards.

The San Diego Tribune wrote in their review of the book just recently the following:

"For the American environmental movement, An Unreasonable Woman could not come at a better time. Citizens across the political spectrum are growing alarmed at the Bush administration's rollback of protective legislation for water, air and national parks. This book does for environmentalism what "All the President's Men did for government reform. Watch for the movie."

Diane is now on a national book tour. Last week she was interviewed on the nationally broadcast radio program, The Diane Rehm Show. Reviews of her book appeared in many newspapers, including the Christian Science Monitor. This past Monday her lawyer called to say that the court said Diane was required to report to jail on Friday! Back in 2002 she staged an action at the local Union Carbide plant and Dow charged her with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, of which she was found guilty and sentenced to 4-6 months of jail time. But as of last week she was still awaiting instructions on when to report to jail. The jail in her county has been condemned, and her lawyer had initially heard that her sentence would not begin until the new jail, under construction, opened in early 2006. It is now felt that Dow is trying to shut her up. In any case, she is refusing to go back to Texas until after she appears at the Bioneers Conference for several workshops in addition to the keynote address. And she refuses to serve her sentence until Warren Anderson, former CEO of Union Carbide reports to jail to serve his sentence.

Anderson, as the key representative of Union Carbide, has been an "absconder from justice" for the past 13 years for failure to face manslauter charges (among others) brought by chief judicial magistrate's court of Bhopal, India. The December 3, 1984 explosion at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal that has to date killed over 20,000 Indians. Anderson, meanwhile, continues to live comfortably in his Bridgehampton, Long Island home.

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