Cable news and newspapers across the country are headlining the continuing explosions at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, that was flooded by Hurricane Harvey. The plant was evacuated after power failed and several containers full of volatile chemicals that required cooling threatened to explode when power was lost and the generators failed. At 1:00 am early Thursday morning, the first of the nine containers exploded, sending a plume of black smoke into the community. The other eight containers are also expected to explode.
So far, at least, the community seems to have been in luck, although 15 first responders were taken to the hospital and later released.
And the NY Times reported that “Arkema was among many chemical companies that fought regulations issued by the Obama administration to tighten safety at facilities nationwide.”
This Incident Raises a Number of Issues
During an interview with Hallie Jackson on MSNBC yesterday, I tried to outline some of the issues that concerned me beyond the immediate threat of the plant. You can view a slightly edited video and a full written transcript of the interview below:
My major concern is that there is a huge concentration of chemical facilities on the Gulf Coast containing volatile chemicals much more hazardous than the chemicals exploding at the Arkema plant. Hydrogen flouride (HF) for example, can damage skin, eyes, lungs, bones and the heart in humans. Exposure can be fatal, and HF acid can form into vapor clouds that are able to spread over large distances. Explosions are easy to see, but no one knows at this point the less visible damage being done by leaking pipes, failed valves, overflowing tanks and swamped Superfund sites.
What the Trump administration fails to recognize is that you can deny climate change all you want, but the fact is that it’s here; it’s happening and the Gulf Coast and its vulnerable chemical infrastructure will inevitably experience great and more damaging storms. Gulf Coast states and chemical facilities need to prepare, and the federal government is betraying its duty to the American people if it doesn’t play a leading role in protecting workers and communities from the damage that these storms will continue to do to the area’s chemical facilities.
You can deny climate change all you want, but the fact is that it’s here; it’s happening and the Gulf Coast and its vulnerable chemical infrastructure will inevitably experience great and more damaging storms.
Instead, however, the Trump administration is heading in the other direction. I admitted during the interview that I didn’t know much about the details of the Arkema incident, but the good news is that there is a federal agency, the Chemical Safety Board, that can investigate the incident and not only identify what went wrong, but recommend ways to prevent similar future incidents. The bad news is that the Trump administration has unfortunately proposed to eliminate the Board. Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives have voted to defy Trump and fully fund the CSB.
Meanwhile, Trump EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in June that it would further delay for two full years implementation of the updated Risk Management Protection (RMP) issued by the Obama administration “to allow the agency to conduct a reconsideration proceeding and to consider other issues that may benefit from additional comment.”
Obama’s RMP rule could have helped prevent or mitigate incidents like the one we are witnessing at Arkema. First, the regulation would have significantly improved coordination between chemical facilities and emergency planners and responders, including annual meetings and exercises. Also, an emergency response program that spells out emergency health care, employee training measures and procedures for informing the public and response agencies (e.g the fire department) should an incident occur. The RMP also improves public access to information in order to help the public understand the risks at RMP facilities and how to protect their families if there is an uncontrolled chemical release.
According to former Obama EPA official Mathy Stanislaus, the exposure of the 15 first responders could have been prevented had EPA allowed an updated Risk Management Program rule to take effect.
If U.S. EPA had implemented a final industrial facility safety rule, none of the officers would have been at risk, said Mathy Stanislaus, who led the agency’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response during the Obama administration.
The rule would have made “sure that the local responders were fully aware of the particular chemical and the particular method to respond to an incident,” he said. It also would have strengthened efforts to head off accidents and done more to keep the public informed of potential risks at plants, said Stanislaus.
“This was a modest first step of addressing safety for first responders and localities,” said Stanislaus, who helped draft the rule.
In addition, the rule would have required chemical plants to prioritize inherently safer technology or design and determine their practicability as part of its Process Hazard Analysis. This means replacing a highly hazardous chemical that could kill thousands if released with chemicals that are less hazardous. Implementation of inherently safer technologies may become increasingly important if chemical plants remain vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather.
The Hate Me; They Really Hate Me
Newsbusters, a website dedicated to “Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias,” was apparently not clear on my message during the MSNBC interview. Labeling me an “Obama hack,” the website argued that “the partisan Obama official made it clear he was only interested in one thing – exploiting the crisis to gratuitously attack the Trump administration.” They accurately reported what I said (even helpfully providing a transcript and video), but provided no substantive comments or criticisms except that I was continually “slamming” and “savaging” Trump.
Guilty as charged on the slamming and savaging. And for good reason as I described above.
But they were wrong in claiming that I was trying to “Blame Trump for Chemical Plant Explosion.” The point I was making was not that Trump is to blame for the Arkema incident or for Hurricane Harvey, but that Trump’s actions — rolling back EPA’s new chemical plant regulation, not addressing climate change, proposing to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board and cutting the budgets of EPA and OSHA– will increase the likelihood that future, much more serious weather-related chemical plant incidents will occur.
MSNBC Interview Transcript
But don’t believe me (or Newsbusters). Judge for yourself:
HALLIE JACKSON: I want to first bring in, though, Jordan Barab, who is on the phone with us now, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA under President Obama. Jordan, thank you for being with us. And I understand you had a chance to listen in to that news conference that we were just listening in to, can I get your reaction to what you heard from Richard Rennard there?
JORDAN BARAB: Yeah, thanks. I’ll tell you, it’s – obviously the facts are still developing here, it’s hard to tell exactly what the impact of this is going to be. It doesn’t seem like this specific incident is going to have a huge impact on the public, we’ll have to see what happens. What concerns me far more right now is the general atmosphere around Houston, where you have a huge concentration of this country’s chemical facilities and refineries with much more dangerous chemicals than you’re finding in the plant that just had the explosions. And what the impact of hurricanes, climate change, and unfortunately, many of the actions of the Trump administration are going to have on the safety of the public who live in the vicinity of these plants.
JACKSON: Drill back down into this specific area, Jordan, into Crosby, what is the takeaway for people who are living in that area of Texas right now? What is the most important thing that they need to be – that they need to know given that they just evacuated this area around the plant?
BARAB: Well, in – people living around these plants need to know what’s in the plants and what the worst case scenarios are. Now EPA has requirements ensure that plants have to calculate that information, but they’re also making it much harder for the public to get a hold of that information that has a direct impact on their lives. They need to know what chemicals are in there. And, quite frankly, there are a lot of facilities in Texas that have much, much more hazardous chemicals than seem to be in this plant. I mean, things like hydrofluoric acid can really kill or injure thousands.
JACKSON: I’m sorry, I don’t want to interrupt you here but given that there’s other plants that you’re talking about with more hazardous chemicals, do you think that that is a concern now as these flood waters have receded in most of east Texas that we’ve been looking at? Is this, in your view, do you think, sort of the last big issue that we might see as it relates to chemical plants or is there concern that there’s going to be more issues sort of coming from here?
BARAB: Well, there’s certainly a concern. I mean, I don’t know if all the flood waters have receded everywhere, we don’t really know what the extent of the impact is on chemical facilities there. But probably more important looking into the future, I mean, the Trump administration can deny climate change all it wants. But the fact is that it’s happening. And these plants that are facing these huge, unprecedented, unexpected floods and other weather events are going to need to figure out what to do about that and how to protect the communities around these facilities. And the Trump administration has been rolling back regulations that would protect people from these kind of incidents.
JACKSON: Should this Arkema facility have done more, should they have been doing more?
BARAB: You know, it’s hard to tell at this point. I mean, obviously, there has to be an investigation about this, which is also troubling because the main agency that does these kind of investigations, the Chemical Safety Board, the Trump administration also proposed that that Chemical Safety Board be eliminated in their budget. So they’re not only, you know, not looking at what’s happening around, but they’re actually taking away the government’s ability to investigate these incidents.
JACKSON: Jordan Barab, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA under President Obama. Jordan, thank you again for joining us here on the phone. I appreciate it.