I saw a big ball of fire," said truck driver Mike Zugel. "It looked to me like a rocket just took off." Zugel's fireball was a deadly explosion at ARCO's petrochemical plant in Channelview, Texas, 20 miles outside of Houston, that leveled an area the size of a city block and burned for more than four hours. A 900,000-gallon treatment tank containing water and chemical waste blew up during a routine maintenance procedure. Officials at the plant, which produces a gasoline additive and chemicals to make plastics, said the source of the disaster was a mystery. "There were hydrocarbons that were burned," said plant manager Earl McCaleb at a press conference. Officials say no leakage of dangerous materials occurred, and no evacuations were ordered. But the disaster's casualty toll was clear enough: at final count, five were injured and 17 dead, 11 of them contract workers hired to perform the maintenance work.
Since last fall, accidents at petrochemical plants have become a way of life in the industrial belt known as the Houston Ship Channel. Earlier last week, a pump valve at Crown Central Petroleum's Pasadena processing plant blew a seal, sending flames 100 feet into the air; no serious injuries resulted. One day last month, six people were injured in separate incidents at two other plants. And a series of explosions last October at the Phillips Petroleum plastics plant in Pasadena killed 23 workers and injured 130. This past spring, prompted by the Phillips disaster, Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole sent a report to the White House that called for improved safety procedures at petrochemical plants. Among other measures, Dole recommended that the industry develop special safety training for contract workers such as those who died last week in the ARCO explosion.
Officials closed the ARCO plant for an indefinite period of time. Assistant Secretary of Labor Gerard Scannell, who serves as the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, toured the plant and announced that a full investigation of the explosion would follow. For now, with the industry's dismal safety record, thousands of residents and petrochemical workers in the Ship Channel area are no doubt worrying about the fire next time.