Houston Chemical Plant Explosions
Home to the nation’s oil and gas industries, several major chemical plant explosions occurred in Texas in 2023. Three major plant explosions rocked the Houston area, killing one person and injuring dozens more.
In March, a BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion) at the INEOS chemical plant in Pasadena seriously injured one worker. Investigators believe a leaky valve may have caused the explosion as workers transferred liquid between tankers.
“Anytime you have a transfer of a chemical like that, if there’s any kind of vapor, it can find an ignition source anywhere,” remarked Deputy Chief Chad Shaw of the Harris County Fire Marshal Office.
The situation could have been much worse regarding flames and toxic clouds. “We did do monitoring in the area north of the fire,” said Dr. Latrice Babin, executive director of Harris County Pollution Control Services. “As of this time, there are not any detections, and we are not expecting there to be any. Fortunately, we have the good wind blowing that’s dispersing whatever was up high and aloof in the flame.”
Shell Deer Park Refinery
A larger explosion at the Shell Oil facility in Deer Park seriously injured nine people in May 2023. The fire burned for almost twelve hours before firefighters extinguished it. Investigators believe maintenance technicians inadvertently caused the explosion while working on the olefins unit.
“You’re looking at a large number of people that need to be interviewed,” Harris County Fire Marshal Captain James Singleton said. “Everyone who was at the unit at the time of the fire, the controllers, management, anybody that called 911.”
Due to the severity of the explosion, Houston meteorologists said the smoke plumes of the Deer Park explosion were visible from space via satellite.
Marathon Petroleum Galveston Bay Refinery
Shortly after that, one worker was killed and two others injured in a fire that erupted Monday morning at the Marathon Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City. The company issued a brief statement expressing sympathy for the victims and vowing that “the safety of our workers and the community is our top priority.”
One worker at the plant said Marathon has a poor safety record. “It is incredibly frustrating,” the worker remarked. “They had delayed repairs because margins were low, and then suddenly the margins were incredibly high, so they delayed maintenance again. They’ve got shareholders expecting big returns and dividends, and keeping the shareholders happy is the most important thing to the executives.”
What Causes Houston Chemical Plant Explosions?
These three incidents are case studies of the three major causes of plant explosions in Houston: corporate negligence, worker negligence, and defective products.
Refineries and other energy production facilities work with some of the most hazardous chemicals on earth, and those dangerous chemicals can cause immediate and long-term injuries.
Violent plant explosions, like the ones listed above, dominate the headlines. Unsafe processing and storage facilities often cause such explosions. Additionally, chemicals used in the oil refinery process often cause explosions or long-term injuries. Some examples include:
- Halogenated FC Hydrocarbons: These toxic and carcinogenic chemicals could adversely affect several organ systems. These effects range from mild ones, such as drowsiness, slurred speech, or headaches, to extreme ones, such as coma or death. Such toxic chemicals often cling to hair, skin, and clothing, so they could also affect loved ones at home.
- Sulfur: Some factories remove sulfur, a natural ingredient in crude oil, during the oil refinery process. Sulfur is a very inexpensive chemical that boosts octane ratings in gasoline. Repeated high sulfur exposure often causes asthma-like allergic reactions. Additional exposure causes worsening respiratory symptoms and skin conditions.
- Ammonium Nitrate: Nitrogen is a refining catalyst, and ammonia greases oil pipelines. When these two chemicals mix, they form a volatile and explosive compound. Domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh used ammonium nitrate to destroy the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Companies must take special care when they use these products. The company must provide proper safety equipment, stress its importance to workers, and train them.
Many companies delegate these responsibilities to lower-level supervisors. These are hard workers who are good at their jobs. But they aren’t corporate trainers. They don’t learn important safety details.
Sometimes, no amount of training keeps energy production workers safe. The tools they use are defective. They’re supposed to cause injuries. So, manufacturers are liable for the injuries they cause.
These three areas sometimes overlap. For example, a supervisor might remove a tool’s safety controls because the removal lets employees work faster.
Legal Options for Houston Chemical Plant Explosion Victims
Usually, these victims are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits that replace lost wages and pay reasonably necessary medical bills. But these benefits aren’t always available. That’s especially true in Texas, where workers’ compensation insurance is optional.
Workers’ compensation is no-fault insurance. Under this program, workers are entitled to the benefits mentioned above, even if they were partially or entirely at fault for a plant explosion or other injury.
If the employer doesn’t have workers’ compensation insurance, injured victims may sue for negligence, which, as mentioned, is a lack of care. Legally, uninsured employers cannot use several key negligence defenses, such as the assumption of risk and comparative fault. Therefore, it’s easier for a Houston personal injury lawyer to prove negligence in court.
Furthermore, employer fraud is a serious problem. Many employers lie on insurance forms, so their premiums decrease. Insurance companies deny payment when they uncover these false statements, leaving injured workers in the cold.
A cheating employer is an uninsured employer. The same negligence rules discussed above also apply in these cases.
A special note about offshore oil rig plant explosions and other injuries: state courts usually don’t have jurisdiction over these cases. So, a Houston personal injury lawyer uses the Jones Act, the Death on the High Seas Act, and other federal laws to obtain compensation for these injury victims.
Plant explosions cause serious injuries, and in one way or another, employers must compensate victims. For a free consultation with an experienced plant explosion lawyer in Houston, contact Williams Hart & Boundas LLP. We do not charge upfront legal fees in these matters.