Energy & Environment

What Are The Chemicals Involved In The La Porte Dow Plant Leak? We Asked An Expert

Houston Public Media spoke with University of Houston chemical engineering professor and Chief Energy Officer Ramanan Krishnamoorti to learn more about the chemicals involved.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media (left) / UH

On Wednesday, a chemical leak at the Dow Chemical Co. Bayport plant caused La Porte city officials to evacuate the surrounding area, when an over-pressurized tank vented a harmful chemical called hydroxyethyl acrylate, or HEA, into the air.

To learn more about the chemical involved in the leak — and chemicals in surrounding trucks and facilities — Houston Public Media energy reporter Kyra Buckley spoke with University of Houston chemical engineering professor and Chief Energy Officer Ramanan Krishnamoorti.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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What can you tell me about hydroxyethyl acrylate, or HEA? What's the concern in the community?

So primarily, in large amounts, it can impact people’s breathing, it could irritate eyes. But long term challenges — such as carcinogenic or toxicological impacts — are much lower than other types of organic molecules. Fortunately, it is something that’s got a high degree of attraction for water, so it tends to be washed away relatively easily compared to many other organic compounds.

We understand that they found the leak in a tanker truck, and they’re monitoring to see if the temperature is going up or down in that truck. Why does that matter?

When this material starts to join together, those reactions are highly exothermic — they release a lot of heat. If that process starts and progresses, then you can have an explosive reaction, and this thing can react violently and explode.

The truck that the leak came from is parked next to two other tanker trucks. One has the same chemical in it. The other one, we understand, has a chemical called methyl methacrylate. Can you tell me more about that and if there are concerns about that chemical compound?

It’s a compound that’s used in Plexiglas. It tends to be, again, something that will irritate people’s eyes, it can affect your your air passages — but clearly not any significant toxic, toxicological or carcinogenic impacts. Like HEA, methyl methacrylate has the same tendency of creating an explosive reaction. If it gets extremely hot within the tanker — more than 200 degrees — then it could be a challenge. But under most normal conditions, it is unlikely to be an issue. They should try and find ways to move the other trucks out of the way, because once you get an explosion, things are uncontrolled and you don’t know where you’re going to have the next challenge.

What questions would you have if you got to sit down with a Dow official?

To try and figure out what the root cause of this accident was. What steps can you put in place that would prevent such leaks from happening in the future? And how do you manage inventories? Is it a good idea to have these multiple trucks of the same compound in close proximity?

Is this type of chemical leak common?

The safety record of the industry — and actually broadly across the country — the safety of chemicals being transported has improved. But I think back 20-to-30 years ago, these things used to happen a lot more frequently, so certainly things have improved. But we’ve got to find better ways to manage this, because ultimately, every time one of these leaks happen, there’s less and less faith in the industry being able to manage what they’re doing, and manage the challenges of moving very hazardous materials around the country.

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