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Second Houston-Area Chemical Plant Fire in Weeks Kills One, Injures Two

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Second Houston-Area Chemical Plant Fire in Weeks Kills One, Injures Two
Smoke from a fire Tuesday at a KMCO plant outside Houston, Texas. Xinhua / Lao Chengyue / via Getty Images

One person has died and two have been critically injured in the second fire to break out at a Houston-area chemical plant in little more than two weeks.

The fire started Tuesday at the KMCO plant in Crosby, Texas when a transfer line ignited near a tank of the flammable gas isobutylene, the Associated Press reported. Workers rushed to escape the blaze by climbing over a fence, and a cloud of black smoke billowed into the air.

"It shook everybody's house around here," Samantha Galle, who lives about a mile away from the plant, told the Associated Press.


The incident follows a fire at an Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) plant in Deer Park on March 17. That fire did not injure anyone, but it did burn for several days, prompting air quality warnings.

"It is disturbing and it is problematic that we're seeing this incident in a facility, especially on the heels of ITC," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a media briefing.

The Crosby fire was extinguished after a five-and-a-half hour battle by firefighters, according to the fire marshal's office. A shelter-in-place order for those within a mile of the fire was lifted around 3 p.m. It had included a mandate that people close windows and turn off air conditioning units, NBC News reported.

Initial U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests indicate that the air is safe.

"We have not seen any detections at action levels," EPA on-scene coordinator Matt Loesel told CNN.

The two workers who were injured were taken by helicopter to a hospital.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the individuals involved, as well as our first responders, employees, and our community," KMCO president John C. Foley told CNN. "We apologize for any inconvenience to residents in the vicinity. The well-being of our people, neighbors and the environment remain our top priorities."

However, NBC News reported that the KMCO plant has a history of environmental violations:

  1. A 2018 EPA report found violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which covers the handling of hazardous materials and non-hazardous solid waste.
  2. EPA inspections also found violations of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts
  3. KMCO settled with Harris County in 2009 when it was sued for discharging waste water polluted with excess levels of ammonia, zinc and copper, among other toxins.
  4. Harris County sued KMCO again over state air and water violations in 2017.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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