Texas officials investigate chemical leak that triggered shelter-in-place order

A shelter-in-place order issued Sunday morning for parts of Texas’ most populous county was lifted by early afternoon, local officials said. The order applied to sections of Harris County, which includes Houston and is home to more than 4 million people, and was ordered in response to a chemical gas leak at a 99 Cents Only Store distribution center in about 30 miles west of town.

An investigation into the warehouse leak and its causes is currently underway, CBS affiliate KHOU reported. The facility, located near a highway in the small town of Katy, will remain closed while the investigation is active, according to the station.

“At this time, we believe it is safe to lift shelter in place and we will continue to work with pollution to monitor throughout the evening,” said Dr. Erika Brown, Division Director of the Community Health and Wellness at Harris County Public Health, during a press conference.

The chemical leak began around 9 p.m. Saturday night, county officials said earlier. They said maintenance crews were doing routine work on the warehouse’s refrigeration system and initially monitoring the leak after it appeared in an overhead refrigeration line. The line itself hangs about 16 feet in the air, said Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen, which at first made it ‘inaccessible’ to the hazmat team sent in as part of the plan. county lockdown.

Christensen said that “because of the height (of the line) and the fact that it is an explosive product”, the hazardous materials team “couldn’t go there and do anything about it initially”.

Janitors noticed the chemical, later determined to be anhydrous ammonia, began leaving the building around 1 a.m. Sunday morning, officials said. No injuries have been reported so far in connection with the leak, but potential threats to air quality and human health prompted the Harris County Public Health Department to implement an order to shelter-in-place for residents within a two-mile radius of the cast. center.

“Our landlord’s certified refrigeration contractor was performing work on the refrigeration system when the release occurred,” 99 Cents Only Store said in a statement obtained by CBS News.

“The safety of our employees, others in the building and our community is always our first priority. The building was quickly evacuated as soon as the leak was discovered,” the statement continued. “Construction operations will only resume once we have confirmed the cause of the release, the issue has been fully resolved, and state and local authorities have advised that the facility is safe for normal operations.”

An ammonia leak poses dangers due to the chemical’s flammability, said fire chief George McAteer, as well as its potential to cause respiratory symptoms and nose and throat irritation if a person enters. in contact with polluted air.

Ammonia, one of the most widely produced chemicals in the United States, is a clear, colorless, odorous compound called anhydrous ammonia in its purest form, the county health department said in a split advisory. on Twitter. Although low levels of ammonia are found in household products, such as cleaning solutions, high and potentially dangerous concentrations of the chemical are “used in manufacturing, refrigeration and agriculture (as fertilizer)”, according to the CDC.

“If anyone has watery eyes, burning eyes, nose or throat irritation, breathing difficulties, we ask that you go to the nearest emergency center for treatment,” said Brown in discussing the chemical leak on Sunday. “If anyone has chronic health conditions or feels they have health risks, we ask that you contact your healthcare provider to determine next steps.”

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