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Fire Breaks out at Houston-Area Exxon Mobil Refinery

Smoke rises from a fire at Exxon Mobil's refining and chemical plant complex in Baytown, near Houston, Texas, July 31, 2019.
Smoke rises from a fire at Exxon Mobil's refining and chemical plant complex in Baytown, near Houston, Texas, July 31, 2019.

Fire broke out at an Exxon Mobil oil refinery in Texas on Wednesday, sending a large plume of smoke into the air, in the latest of a series of petrochemical industry blazes this year in the Houston area.

The fire began around 11 a.m. at an Exxon Mobil facility in Baytown, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of Houston.

The city of Baytown said the fire is in an area that contains polypropylene material and that Exxon Mobil has requested some nearby residents to shelter in place as a precaution.

It was not immediately known if there were injuries.

Television video from the fire showed dark smoke rising into the air from a large metal stack that was on fire. Crews were dousing the stack and surrounding structures with water.

In a statement, Irving, Texas- based Exxon Mobil said the fire occurred at its Olefins plant, which produces ethylene, a chemical used to make plastic and industrial products. Ethylene is highly flammable. According to records kept by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Olefins plant had 68 tons (69 metric tons) of ethylene on site in 2017. It also had large quantities of other potentially hazardous chemicals, including ammonia, benzene, and propylene.

Exxon Mobil said it was conducting air quality monitoring at the site on Wednesday and it was cooperating with regulatory agencies.

“Our first priority remains the safety of people, including our employees, contractors and the community,” the company said.

The Olefins plant is part of the company's 3,400-acre refinery complex in Baytown. It is one of eight plants that Exxon agreed to retrofit with anti-pollution technology in a settlement with the U.S. government. The company also agreed to pay $2.5 million in fines to federal and state authorities after being accused of violating the Clean Air Act with industrial flares from its factories.

Wednesday's fire is the latest one to have taken place at Houston-area petrochemical facilities this year, including one at another facility on the Exxon Mobil Baytown complex.
On March 16, a fire erupted at a refinery on Exxon Mobil's Baytown complex. The fire was extinguished hours later, but Harris County officials say it continued to release toxic pollutants for eight more days. The county has sued Exxon Mobil, accusing the company of violating the federal Clean Air Act.

Also in March, a fire burned or days at a at a petrochemical storage facility in nearby Deer Park and caused chemicals to flow into a nearby waterway.

In April, one worker died after a tank holding a flammable chemical caught fire in nearby Crosby.