Arkema Update: Chemical Plants and Climate Change

Chemical Harvey Arkema
Credit KTRK, via Associated Press

More information is coming out about the chemical releases at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby Texas following last summer’s flooding in the Houston area as a result of Hurricane Harvey.

To refresh your memory, rising floodwaters disabled the plant’s power supply, the emergency generators and finally the cooling mechanisms in temporary truck storage, allowing the temperature of highly reactive chemicals to rise to the point where the chemicals in three refrigerated trucks exploded. The police department bomb squad had to come in to destroy the other trucks for fear that explosions might release other, more dangerous chemicals.  Although the surrounding area had been evacuated, several dozen police officers were sickened by the smoke from the explosions and had to be hospitalized.

The Houston Chronicle concluded, based on interviews and documents released by the EPA, that “Prior to the chemical fire at its Crosby plant, Arkema underestimated the potential for storm damage and failed to keep essential backup power protected from rising floodwaters, documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle show.”

My initial response to that conclusion is “duh,” but in these times of climate change and a growing number of severe weather events, that conclusion should serve as a critical lesson that every chemical facility in the country should learn and respond to.

Meanwhile, the Chemical Safety Board has released a video animation of events leading to the fires, explosions and chemical releases at the plant.

The Houston Chronicle, based on interviews and EPA documents, made the following findings:

  • Arkema’s emergency response plan provided employees with little direction for how to handle major flooding events. It contained one paragraph about flooding but a page and a half on handling bomb threats, records show.
  • Arkema’s main power transformers and its powerful backup generators were not high enough off the ground, causing them to become submerged with floodwaters, Arkema records show. Without power, the company could not keep its stash of organic peroxides at a safe temperature inside its refrigerated buildings.
  • The company’s last resort for keeping organic peroxides cool – refrigerated trailers – also was destined to fail. The diesel-powered trailers had fuel tanks that ran along the bottom of the vehicle. More than 3 feet of water compromised the fuel tanks, causing the freezers to die.
  • Arkema had a tank of an extremely dangerous chemical, isobutylene, located about 40 yards from six trailers that had been relocated during the storm, according to interviews and satellite images. Government officials were concerned about a chain reaction with that chemical that could have led to catastrophic results

A few observations. Arkema claimed that the level of flooding — over 7 feet — was unforeseeable. Undoubtedly . But Arkema was only prepared for flood levels of 3 feet, even though they had previously experienced two-foot flood levels. So was 4 feet foreseeable? Probably.

Of more concern, the Chronicle points out that the nearby tank of isobutylene was an issue of major concern. As the paper details, “An isobutylene tank failure could have triggered a chain reaction, taking out the company’s sulfur dioxide tank and creating a toxic cloud. Arkema’s risk-management plan said such a reaction could affect more than a million Houston-area residents.”

The issue of chain reactions — when the shrapnel from a less dangerous explosion threatens release of a much more dangerous chemical has been noted in several CSB investigations, including an August 28, 2008, an explosion at a Bayer Crop Science plant in Institute, West Virginia, that launched debris that struck the protective steel shield blanket surrounding a 6,700-gallon methyl isocyanate (MIC) “day tank” 70 feet away. The MIC tank was not punctured but raised serious concerns and calls for the plant to discontinue MIC use.  Similarly, an 2002 explosion at First Chemical Corporation in Pascagoula, Mississippi rocketed shrapnel into the vicinity of anhydrous ammonia, chlorine and sulfur dioxide tanks. The release of any of those chemicals could also have had a serious impact on communities in the vicinity of the plant.

CSB: Be Prepared

The CSB’s final report has not yet been released, but they too found that the facility was not prepared for such heavy rainfall and Chair Vanessa Sutherland warned that chemical facilities to “Plan and plan again.” Without actually saying the “CC” words (“Climate Change”), Sutherland warned that “As tropical storms in Gulf of Mexico a increase in frequency or intensity it is imperative that facilities have effect emergency response plans” that re-assess worst case scenario assumptions.

CSB investigators also acknowledged that there is currently only voluntary guidance, but no regulations or laws requiring facilities to adequately address severe weather events in their disaster planning. The video of the CSB’s press conference can be seen on its Facebook page here.

Finally, there is the ongoing issue of protecting emergency responders. filed suit against the company in September.

The responders allege that the plant owner, Arkema, minimized the dangers of exposure to the fire and failed to warn the responders manning the perimeter of the mandatory 1.5 mile evacuation area to move farther away from the fumes after the first of nine trailers full of volatile organic peroxide burst into flames in the early nighttime hours of Aug. 29.

“Immediately upon being exposed to the fumes from the explosion, and one by one, the police officers and first responders began to fall ill in the middle of the road,” says the lawsuit.

Providing emergency responders with the information they need to be prepared to respond safety to incidents has always been an important, if problematic issue.  The Environmental Protection Agency issued a regulation during the last days of the Obama administration that addressed these issues, but that regulation has been delayed for two years while the Trump administration “reconsiders” it.

The CSB hopes to release it’s final report before next hurricane season.  I’ll be interested in to what extent the report addresses not just this event, but the overall issue of operating hazardous facilities in these times of more and more severe weather events.  As I’ve said before, just evacuating the plant and waiting for it to explode is not a sustainable solution.

Chemical Plant Safety Chemical Safety Board Hurricane Harvey

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