Chemical Harvey Arkema
Credit KTRK, via Associated Press

I have a feeling we ain’t seen nothing yet about the effects of Hurricane Harvey on the chemical industry in the Gulf States — and those who live near chemical facilities.  Although the loss of control over chemicals at the Crosby Arkema chemical plant seems to have fallen out of the news in favor of Kim Jong Un, DACA and Hurricane Irma, the NY Times published an article today on the chemical safety flaws that the hurricane uncovered. The Arkema plant, you will recall, lost power, then lost its backup generators due to flooding and was unable to provide necessary cooling to stabilize a half million pounds of liquid organic peroxides that later exploded.

I’ll summarize the main points below (along with a bit of supplemental information), but read the article anyway.

It could have been worse

When they realized that the plant had to be abandoned, workers put the chemicals into trailers moved them to higher ground away from far more hazardous chemicals

The workers’ actions most likely averted a wider catastrophe. The plant stores other hazardous chemicals, including sulfur dioxide and isobutylene. Release of those could have led to contamination of a far wider area. Under a worst-case scenario drawn up by Arkema, a leak of sulfur dioxide could affect more than a million residents over more than 1,600 square miles of East Texas.

Arkema had warning

Arekema claimed that there was no way they could have known that such levels of flooding could occur. In fact, they even claimed that

“It is not an industrial accident,” said Gilles Galinier, Arkema’s vice president of communications at its French headquarters. “The problems that arose resulted from the hurricane and the torrential rains that fell upon Texas and more particularly on Crosby.”

Huh? Not an industrial accident? This plant operates on planet earth. All kinds of unexpected things can happen, some from naturally occurring events. That doesn’t mean they aren’t industrial accidents.

True, the 40 inches of rainfall was unprecedented But….

In 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall over Galveston, killing 103 people and causing more than $50 billion in damage. The following year, Arkema identified floods and hurricanes — as well as power failure and loss of cooling — as threats to its Crosby site.

Still, Arkema did little to update its contingency plans. The plans, which the company must file with the E.P.A. every four years, did not include measures to raise critical equipment like backup generators above possible flood levels. Nor did the plans call for isolating hazardous materials from high wind or water.

“They identify new hazards but don’t change anything in their plans,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund. “What should have happened in their revision is that when they considered floods and hurricanes, they should have considered would they have to evacuate because of flooding, for example.”

Although the Times didn’t mention it, it’s also interesting to not that some Houston facilities did learn from past events. Most Houston hospitals, for example, had learned the lessons of Hurricane Allison in 2001 and built outside berms, flood gates and relocated their emergency electricity generators in the basement to higher levels. Consequently, only one major Houston hospital was forced to close as a result of the flooding.

Weak Government Oversite

The organic peroxides that were involved in the problems at the Arkema plant are considered to be “reactive” chemicals which, the Times noted, are not covered by EPA’s Risk Management Program. Although the Chemical Safety Board recommended in 2002 that EPA (and OSHA) better address reactive chemical hazards, no action has been taken by either agency. OSHA’s PSM standard standard covers some reactive chemicals (probably including the chemicals involved in the Arkema incident), but does not adequately address reactive chemical hazards.  OSHA is currently working on a revised PSM standard and is considering including reactive chemicals hazards in that standard. The EPA recently issued a revised RMP regulation that did not improve the agency’s handing of reactive chemicals, and did not cover the chemicals involved in the Arkema incident.

In addition, both EPA and OSHA have very small staff capable of inspecting chemical facilities.   The Times writes that “OSHA has few inspectors trained to examine chemical facilities, and rarely inspects chemical facilities unless there is an accident or particular complaint. ”  That’s not completely true. OSHA is conducting a chemical facility “National Emphasis Program” where the agency conducts pro-active inspections of chemical facilities.

The Houston Chronicle last year went into more detail:

OSHA is charged with protecting American workers but has 1,840 inspectors — roughly the same since 1981 — for 8 million U.S. workplaces. Inspecting every facility one time would take 145 years, according to the AFL-CIO.  Only 267 OSHA inspectors have specialized training for about 15,000 chemical facilities.

In 2011, the agency began a chemical emphasis program, but it looks at a relatively small number of plants. An analysis by the Chronicle and researchers at the Texas A&M University Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center ranked thousands of facilities in greater Houston on their potential to harm the public. OSHA did not inspect most of the top 55 facilities in the last five years.

EPA, as the Chronicle reports

Commits less than 1 percent of its $8.6 billion budget to chemical safety. About 35 inspectors police more than 12,000 of the most dangerous facilities nationwide under its Risk Management Program. That program, the agency’s chief prevention strategy, requires those facilities to develop emergency response procedures and to consider worst-case scenarios for toxic releases. Only about 280 facilities in the Houston area are required to file such plans, according to federal data.

The Chemical Safety Board is a tiny agency with an $11 million budget and fewer than 50 employees. The Trump administration proposed elimination of the CSB. Although Congress will probably save the Board, they are not inclined to enlarge it.

And budget-wise, of course, things are only going to get worse under the Trump administration and Republican control of Congress.

Rolling Back Protections

As if things aren’t bad enough, the Times notes that although EPA updated its Risk Management Program (RMP) regulation during the Obama administration, Trump’s EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has delayed implementation for 20 months while the agency “reconsiders” its protections. Obama’s RMP regulation improved requirements that agencies consider safer alternative chemicals, required more transparency about hazardous chemicals and processes for the community and emergency responders, and enhanced requirements for better coordination between emergency responders and the chemical facilities.  Pruitt used alleged chemical plant security concerns as the main reason for rolling back EPA’s reg:

A number of states also opposed the rule, led by the current E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, who at the time was the attorney general of Oklahoma. In a letter dated July 27, 2016, to Gina McCarthy, who was then the E.P.A. administrator, Mr. Pruitt and 10 other Republican attorneys general said the rule itself would harm citizens.

“The safety of these manufacturing, processing and storage facilities should be a priority for us all, but safety encompasses more than preventing accidental releases of chemicals, it also encompasses preventing intentional releases caused by bad actors seeking to harm our citizens,” Mr. Pruitt and others wrote.

Pruitt’s “security” excuse was strengthened by the highly suspect conclusion of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms last year that the fire at the West Chemical plant that lead to a catastrophic explosion was caused by arson.

And the state of Texas is making things even worse.

Texas, meanwhile, has tightened chemical disclosure rules, citing terrorism fears. The state’s Homeland Security Act, passed in 2003, made government information that could potentially be used by terrorists confidential. In recent years, chemical companies have pointed to that law to withhold information on chemicals at their facilities, despite a federal rule that mandates their disclosure.


The Times article sums up by warning that “The close call has raised doubts about the preparedness of the nation’s vast chemicals industry for potentially bigger disasters, both natural and man-made.”

I would say that’s a gross understatement. Trump can deny climate change all he wants, but the fact is that it’s here.  The Gulf Coast and its huge concentration of chemical facilities are going to be experiencing more and more extreme weather events in the future and federal government, state government and the chemical industry are going to have to figure out how to respond.

It looks like we dodged a bullet in the Arkema incident. But there are many more chemicals that are far more hazardous can injure or kill thousands if released. We can’t count on being so lucky in the future.

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