It was incorrectly reported Saturday that two workers were killed at a Crown Central Petroleum facility in Pasadena, Tex., within the last month. Two persons suffered minor injuries in a fire there July 3. (Published 7/11/90)

HOUSTON, JULY 6 -- Seventeen workers at the Arco Chemical Co. plant on the Houston Ship Channel in the industrial suburb of Channelview were killed, and five were injured late Thursday night in a massive blast that leveled two steel tanks and charred an area the size of a city block.

The explosion, whose cause has not been determined, was the second major disaster in the Houston petrochemical corridor within a year, coming almost nine months after 23 workers died in a blast at a Phillips Petroleum Co. refinery in nearby Pasadena Oct. 23.

It was the 12th reported incident involving petrochemicals in Texas plants in 30 days, renewing fierce debate about safety, hiring, training and regulation in the industry.

"This was another deplorable episode, predictable but preventable," said Tony Mazzocchi, secretary-treasurer of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union. "With the increased use of untrained contract labor, with the lack of preventive maintenance, these plants have become battlegrounds . . . . "

Monte Janssen of the Texas Chemical Council responded, "Obviously, whenever there is a tragedy of this magnitude, a lot of evaluating has to be done. But in that light . . . the chemical industry has a good record . . . . records show that we are safer than agriculture, mining and construction in terms of injuries per 100 workers. So we feel terrible, but we shouldn't hang our heads."

The Arco blast occurred between 11:15 and 11:30 p.m. in a remote section of the facility that provides cooling water and steam for the plant. Normally, only five workers are in the area at that time, but the tanks were being cleaned.

Five of the dead were Arco employees, 11 worked for the firm contracted to clean the tanks -- Austin Industrial -- and one was a truck driver who worked for another contractor, Waste Processing Inc.

The tanks contained waste water and hydrocarbons capable of ignition under intense heat. A gasoline engine apparently on or near the truck has been targeted as a potential source of the explosion, although investigators were reluctant to narrow the range of possible causes.

Gerard F. Scannell, assistant secretary of labor who runs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), toured the scene today at the start of what he said would be a thorough OSHA investigation.

There were few known witnesses to the blast, which could be heard 10 miles away and shattered windows in neighborhood homes.

"We heard an explosion, and everybody yelled, 'Run!' and we all took off," said Marlene Viscus, a member of the cleaning crew.

Mike Zugel, a truck driver who saw the explosion, told television crews this morning that "I saw a big flash cross in front of my eyes. I looked over to my left, and I saw a big ball of fire. It looked to me . . . like a rocket just took off."

Chemical plants are a way of life from Beaumont and Port Arthur through Houston and down the Gulf Coast toward Corpus Christi. The area boasts the world's largest congregation of petrochemical refineries, with more than 250 plants employing 77,000 workers and producing 46 percent of the nation's major chemicals.

The Arco refinery produces chemicals used in products ranging from seat cushions to plastic diapers to skateboards to dog food.

While California and New Jersey, also major chemical-processing states, have accident-prevention laws establishing safety guidelines and requiring public hazard-assessment plans for each plant, the Texas petrochemical industry essentially is self-regulated.

Janssen said self-regulation has worked well, especially since the Chemical Manufacturers Association began a "Responsible Care" program in which plants agree not to process chemicals if they present problems with health, safety or the neighboring environment.

Many citizens groups in communities near the plants are less enthralled. Pat Pinkerton, leader of North Channelview Concerned Citizens Against Pollution, said she was alarmed that many of her neighbors sat on curbsides watching the Arco fire "like it was a circus show," without being told whether the smoke was noxious.

She said her community has no emergency sirens in case of plant explosions. "I would much rather be worried about possible dangers than mistakenly think everything is all right," she said.

In the dozen petrochemical incidents in the last month, two workers were killed at Crown Petroleum in Pasadena, one was injured at Dow Chemical in Freeport, five families were evacuated near Phillips Petroleum in Fort Bend, seven people were injured at Atochem Petroleum along the ship channel and eight were injured and six blocks evacuated at Trans Chem in Katy.

Also, eight people were injured at Phillips Petroleum in Pasadena, two were injured at Solvents and Chemicals in Pearland, 10 square blocks were evacuated at Corsan Trucking in Bacliff, 200 children were evacuated from school at Dow Chemical in Freeport, three were injured and six miles of Interstate 35 evacuated at La Roche in Waxahachie and two were injured at Marathon Petroleum in Texas City.

After the Phillips tragedy in October, a toxic watchdog group called Texans United and dozens of environmental groups asked Texas Gov. Bill Clements (R) to name a blue-ribbon task force to study safety issues. Clements declined, saying industry and the federal government were doing adequately.

As part of OSHA's investigation of the Phillips explosion, the John Gray Institute at Lamar University examined use of contract workers. The preliminary study found that the plants are relying increasingly on temporary contract workers who have higher turnover, injury and illness rates; receive significantly less safety and health training; are less knowledgeable about work-place hazards, and work under less comprehensive safety management than permanent employees.

OSHA's Scannell said he was not ready to draw conclusions about reliance on contract workers. About one-third of workers in most Texas chemical plants are thought to be in that category. Scannell also described as "about normal" the fact that the Arco plant had seven OSHA inspections in the last 14 years.