Chemical Harvey Arkema
Credit KTRK, via Associated Press

The Chemical Safety Board released its report on the Arkema chemical incident last week. You may recall that during the heavy rains in the Houston area following Hurricane Harvey last year, the Arkema chemical plant was flooded and lost all ability to control the temperature of reactive organic peroxides.  The company evacuated the plant and left the chemicals to explode as their temperatures rose. Although the surrounding area had been evacuated, several dozen police officers were sickened by the smoke from the explosions and had to be hospitalized.

Arkema, which released a statement, apparently before reading the report, congratulated itself. “Arkema is pleased that after an eight-month-long investigation, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) report accurately depicts the unforeseeable nature of the situation Arkema faced during Hurricane Harvey.”

Well, not exactly.

It turns out that while the rains and flooding may have been acts of God (or maybe an act of climate change), neither the rains nor the flooding were “unforeseeable.” The CSB reports that a September 2016 report from Factory Mutual Insurance Company showed that some portions of the facility are in the 100-year floodplain while the remaining portions are in the 500-year floodplain, but plant employees, other than a past facility manager, appeared to be unaware of this information.

While the rains and flooding may have been acts of God (or maybe an act of climate change), neither the rains nor the flooding were “unforeseeable.”

The Board also noted that although the plant had a long history of flooding, none of the current employees remembered and no records were kept of previous flooding incidents. In fact, according to the CSB report: “Extreme flooding had been occurring with regularity. Since 1994, the water gauge closest to the Arkema Crosby facility recorded three 100-year flooding events, one of which came close to the 500-year flood criteria.”

In addition, the report notes that “FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] issued a significant revision to the relevant flood insurance rate map in 2007. This revision established that the entire Arkema Crosby facility sits within a floodplain. Some portions of the facility are in the 100-year floodplain, and the remaining areas of the site are in the 500-year floodplain.”

Arkema was aware of the dangers of the organic peroxides posed if refrigeration was lost, and had multiple backup systems (or “layers of protection”), such as “refrigeration systems in the Low Temperature Warehouses; emergency generators to provide power in case a Low Temperature Warehouse lost power; liquid nitrogen for alternative cooling; and refrigerated trailers to store organic peroxide temporarily.”

But the plant also had a “common mode of failure,” according to the report. In other words, all of these backup systems were great — except that they were all  dependent on the same thing — electrical power. And when the electric power failed, all of the backup systems failed as well.

The same floodwater that caused the facility to lose electrical power also compromised the backup emergency generators, the liquid nitrogen system, and the refrigerated trailers used to temporarily store and cool the organic peroxide products. Companies need to ensure there are not common modes of failure in their layers of protection.

Missed Opportunities

They say that God provides the lessons, but mankind provides the learning.

Actually, I just made that up, but it is true that in this case that mankind was granted a rather inexpensive lesson: A chemical facility overwhelmed by flooding, causing explosions and chemical releases, but happily without serious injuries to responders or community residents. With different chemical, it could have been much worse.

God provides the lessons, but mankind provides the learning.

And Arkema wasn’t the only chemical plant affected by the hurricane. The Houston Chronicle reported that “More than a dozen Texas chemical and refining plants reported damaged storage tanks, ruptured containment systems and malfunctioning pressure relief valves as a result of Hurricane Harvey, portending safety problems that might not become apparent for months or years.”  But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The Arkema report revealed that “102 reported incidents involving releases to the environment from industrial facilities were in some way caused by the hurricane (although close to half were done in a “controlled” manner by the facilities.)

But has the industry learned the lessons from Arkema’s failure to understand the potential for flooding and failure to ensure the survival of backup power?  As I wrote at the time “in these times of climate change and a growing number of severe weather events, [the Arkema event] should serve as a critical lesson that every chemical facility in the country should learn and respond to.”

CSB Chair Vanessa Sutherland, who last week announced her resignation as CSB Chair, warned in a press release that

“Our investigation found that there is a significant lack of guidance in planning for flooding or other severe weather events. Based on other government reports, we know that there is a greater likelihood of more severe weather across the country. As we prepare for this year’s hurricane season, it is critical that industry better understand the safety hazards posed by extreme weather events….Considering that extreme weather events are likely to increase in number and severity, the chemical industry must be prepared for worst case scenarios at their facilities. We cannot stop the storms , but working together, we can mitigate the damage and avoid a future catastrophic incident.”

Not a bad statement, but unfortunately, that important message was not adequately reflected in the report or in the report’s recommendations, and the lessons certainly have not been learned by the Trump administration.  The only recommendation from the report to any federal agency was a repeat recommendation to EPA to cover reactive hazards under its Risk Management Program. (The recommendation was originally made in 2002 and was accompanied by a similar recommendation to OSHA, which was not repeated in this report.)

The only other recommendations were to Arkema (do a better job ensuring the safety of your chemicals), the Center for Chemical Process Safety (develop standards for severe weather events ) and Harris County (protect your emergency responders better.)

But those weren’t enough considering that what we’re dealing with here is a potential national crisis. Sutherland did not mention the words “climate change,” but that’s what we’re facing and with it severe weather events — and not just affecting the chemical plant heavy Gulf states. Remember Super Storm Sandy that tore into New York and (chemical plant heavy) New Jersey a few years ago?  And 100 to 500 year floods are happening far more often than every 100 to 500 years, and not just on the nation’s coasts.

Making large and small chemical plants and refineries safe from storms and floods is not going to be easy, fast or cheap.  But it’s clearly increasingly necessary. 

Making large and small chemical plants and refineries safe from storms and floods is not going to be easy, fast or cheap.  But it’s increasingly necessary and we have the basic tools to make it happen.  OSHA’s Process Safety Management Standard (PSM) and EPA’s Risk Management Program regulation (RMP) establish systems that chemical facilities must follow to ensure their safety. Both require plants to perform a Process Hazard Analysis (PHA) —  “a thorough, orderly, systematic approach for identifying, evaluating, and controlling the hazards of processes involving highly hazardous chemicals.”  Facilities are also required to perform a Management of Change (MOC) review whenever conditions change that could affect plant safety.

The CSB report notes that although both OSHA and EPA told the CSB that weather events should be included in a plant’s Process Hazard Analysis (PHA), they also note that there’s nothing in the regulations or related guidance that require — or even mention — weather or flooding.  Similarly, while a change in flood plain maps or Flood Insurance Studies would trigger the need for an MOC review, nothing in either regulation specifically mentions such changes.

It’s not a crazy idea — at least in other countries:

In the United Kingdom, the Environment Agency published guidance to help regulated facilities conduct flood planning. This flood preparation guidance recommends that companies should be aware of their flood risks at all facilities, obtain flood modeling results, prepare a flood plan, and improve their flood resilience. The guidance also recommends that companies should be able to implement their flood plan before flooding and that each plan include steps to protect workers, safeguard hazardous processes, and secure hazardous materials.

OSHA is currently in the process of updating its Process Safety Management (PSM) standard.   Although OSHA wasn’t directly involved in the Arkema incident (because plant workers had been evacuated), emergency responders were injured in the event. (They weren’t covered by OSHA because they are public employees and public employees aren’t covered by OSHA in Texas. Another story….)  Nevertheless, a CSB recommendation to OSHA that severe weather events be explicitly mentioned in the revised standard would have been important and timely. In addition, a recommendation that OSHA accelerate completion of the new PSM standard — currently languishing on OSHA’s “Long Term” regulatory agenda — would have been appropriate.

After all the backup systems failed, the only thing left to do at Arkema was to evacuate the plant and wait for it to blow up. That’s not a sustainable strategy for chemical plant safety in this country.

EPA, meanwhile, recently proposed to rescind its revised RMP rule, issued in the last days of the Obama administration.  (Arkema’s parent company lobbied to delay the rules.) Again, it would have been appropriate — and important — for the CSB to recommend that the proposal to rescind the protections be withdrawn and the RMP regulation strengthened to include severe weather events. EPA’s RMP regulation also included enhanced requirements to inform emergency responders and the public living in the vicinity of chemical plants about the hazards in the plants and the plans to respond to plant emergencies. Residents in the Crosby area, as well as emergency responders, complained that they had very little information about what was going on during the emergency and how to prepare for it.

And while the CSB is probably (and understandably) reluctant to make recommendations to the White House, chemical plant security is a matter of national security. More Americans are likely to die from chemical plant incidents in the foreseeable future than North Korean nukes, and the White House National Security Staff should be involved in ensuring the safety of the nation’s chemical facilities as it was following President Obama’s Executive Order issued in the wake of the 2013 explosion at West Fertilizer.

Congress has a role here as well. As I said before, ensuring the safety of chemical facilities in the wake of climate change will not be cheap — and not every chemical facility with the potential to spark a catastrophic chemical release has the resources of DuPont or BP.  Congress should make money available for smaller facilities to address weather-related hazards as quickly as possible.

After all the backup systems failed, the only thing left to do at Arkema was to evacuate the plant and wait for it to blow up. That’s not a sustainable strategy for chemical plant safety in this country.

We have been warned. Now, what are we going to do about it?

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