Explosion and fire at refining facility near Houston

February 8, 2011 4:08:12 PM PST
A fire erupted at a petroleum plant east of Houston on Tuesday, sending balls of orange flame and thick black smoke into the sky. The Mont Belvieu Police Department confirms the explosion happened just after noon at Enterprise Products on Sun Oil Road.

Enterprise says one contract worker is unaccounted for.

"We need to confirm if he was in there to begin with and then determine if anyone saw him leave or if anyone saw him not leave," Enterprise Spokesperson Rick Rainey said. "That's all a part of what we're trying to find out right now with interviewing other people that were there."

Eight to 10 employees were on site when the explosion occurred, and so far no reports of injuries have been reported.

The company says it shut valves, and a special fire team is at the scene trying to keep area cool until the fire burns itself, though it's unclear how long it will take before that happens. The blaze was at Enterprise's west storage facility, not the main facility. That part of the facility stores natural gas liquids.

According to Enterprise, an employee in the control room had an inkling something was wrong and began shutting down lines shortly before the explosion. They don't yet know the cause, though they suspect that a rupture in the pipeline caused the blast.

Steve Mears told us he was working nearby.

"I was just south about 100 yards. At first there was a pop, and a cloud of white mist, then a plume of flames. I noticed some horses running away," said Mears. "I could feel the concussion when it first went off. Bright orange and yellow flames. I was in my car and fired it up and headed to a safe location."

Eyewitness Oscar Saenz told us, "Around 12:15pm I heard two loud blows -- like boom, boom," and saw the huge flames at the facility.

Another man we spoke to said he talked with his dad who is a supervisor at the plant.

"He said that there were about eight explosions and everyone was accounted for and it was pretty bad," said Chris Diller.

Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia advised residents to avoid the area, and authorities shut down Highway 146 near the facility through Mont Belvieu, as are other side streets.

Authorities say there are no air quality issues at this point. ABC13 Meterologist Travis Herzog said the wind is coming in from the southeast at 15-20 miles per hour, and that the plume of smoke is ?heading away from Mont Belvieu.

Mont Belvieu City Hall tells us there are no evacuation orders, but not a lot of homes are near the scene.

A spokesperson from Barbers Hill ISD told us that all Barbers Hills ISD schools have a modified shelter in place with parents allowed to pick up their children at any time.

In the area beneath Mont Belvieu are salt caverns that make up the world's largest storage site for hydrocarbons. Numerous leaks, explosion and other industrial accidents have occurred in the area's petrochemical plants over the years, including an underground gas leak in 1980 that forced 72 families from their homes for nearly five months.


According to its website, "Enterprise owns a state of the art gasoline additive production facility that has been modified to produce isooctane, a motor gasoline octane enhancement additive used in reformulated motor gasoline blends to increase octane, and isobutylene." [Company website]

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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