No chemical release, just massive fire at Texas plant that exploded overnight

The explosion occurred the same day that a court denied a motion to block the Trump administration's delay of stricter chemical safety rules.

A man talks with officers at a roadblock less than three miles from the Arkema Inc. chemical plant Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Crosby, Texas. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
A man talks with officers at a roadblock less than three miles from the Arkema Inc. chemical plant Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Crosby, Texas. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

The Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas suffered two explosions late Wednesday night, after having lost power for days following Hurricane Harvey. The explosions sent black smoke into the air, and at least 10 deputies have gone to the hospital following the incident, citing complaints of headache and dizziness, according to Morning Joe.

All of the plant’s employees, as well as about 300 people living within 1.5 miles of the plant, had previously been evacuated, after Arkema’s CEO said Wednesday that there was no way to avoid an explosion at the plant. The plant, which is currently under six feet of water, has been without power since Sunday, after its backup generators and coolant system were both were inundated. Without power, the plant was unable to cool volatile chemicals stored and produced onsite; if those chemicals do not remain cool, they can naturally degrade and combust.

Local authorities and the company have decided to “let the fire burn itself out,” due to the volatile nature of the chemicals involved. Because chemicals are stored in multiple locations throughout the facility, the company warned of the potential for more explosions, imploring residents to remain outside of the one and a half mile evacuation zone.

According to EPA data obtained by the Houston Chronicle, the Crosby plant housed thousands of pounds of chemicals like methylpropene — an extremely flammable gas with a high risk of explosion when exposed to oxidizing agents — and sulfur dioxide, a highly toxic chemical which can explode in heat or fire and poses serious health risks even in small quantities. Chemicals at the plant are used in a number of industrial manufacturing processes, including making acrylic-based paint, fiberglass, and agricultural products.

Residents nearby the plant told the Houston Chronicle that they were unaware that the plant contained hazardous chemicals.

“They assured us they don’t have nothing dangerous,” Manuel Cruz, who lived across from the plant for three years, said.

The EPA estimates that as many as 4,000 people live within a 3-mile radius of the plant, according to NPR.

Residents can return to their homes, “when it’s safe,” Harris Country Assistant Fire Chief Bob Royall said at a press conference Thursday morning. He did not offer a timetable for when that might be. Royall compared the smoke from the plant to campfire smoke, but on further questioning said he was “not saying” it was equally safe to breathe.

“This isn’t a chemical release. What we have is a fire,” Arkena representative Richard Rennard said at the press conference. “The toxicity of the smoke will certainly cause an irritation to your eyes or to your lungs if you breathe it, just like any smoke,” he said, but he reassured the public that the decomposing organic peroxide was the only product they anticipated would burn.

“These things can burn very quickly and very violently,” Rennard said. Thursday morning, only one of the eight containers in the plant had combusted. “We fully expect that the other eight containers will do the same thing,” he said. “We believe at this point the safest thing to do is to allow the product in those other containers to degrade.”

He said other chemicals on site are safely stored.

In 2014, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (now governor) released a decision allowing government entities to withhold information from the public about where dangerous chemicals are stored. Previously, the public had been able to request information from the state’s Health Services department to find out whether certain plants housed potentially hazardous chemicals. Abbott defended the move by telling the public that they could ask companies directly what kinds of chemicals they stored in their facilities.

But chemical companies are notoriously opaque when it comes to sharing information about their chemicals with the public, and obtaining that information has become even more difficult in recent years, due to post-September 11 security measures meant to keep information about potentially explosive chemicals away from public view.

In 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency established the Risk Management Program, aimed at preventing accidents at chemical facilities throughout the country. The regulations required certain facilities to conduct hazard assessments and coordinate with local agencies to create a response plan in the event of a chemical disaster. But the program failed to prevent several catastrophic incidents, including the 2013 explosion at a West Texas fertilizer plant that killed 15 and injured 200 more.

In the wake of that disaster, the Obama administration began taking steps to amend the Risk Management Program to better protect the public — and chemical companies themselves — from deadly disasters. The amendments, finalized in December of 2016, required facilities to conduct root-cause analyses in the event of a chemical release or explosion, to pinpoint exactly what led to the incident. The rule also required facilities to contract with an independent third-party to perform a compliance audit after any incident that caused death, injury, or significant damage.

Under the Obama administration’s rule, regulated facilities would have to provide local emergency responders with the facility’s emergency response plan and would have to conduct annual exercises to test the facility’s ability to effectively communicate with both emergency responders and the public in the event of a release or explosion.

Finally, the rule required that chemical facilities share chemical hazard information with the public upon request, and that the companies provide notification of the availability of such information on their website, via social media, or some other public platform.

Because it stored both sulfur dioxide and methylpropene, the Crosby plant was subject to the Risk Management Program, and would have been required to update its emergency plans and publicly available data in accordance with the Obama administration’s amendments. Just days before the new rule was set to go into effect, however, the Trump administration EPA announced its intention to delay implementation of the rule, citing concerns from industry that the rule could make it easier for criminals to target chemical facilities and refineries.

Eleven states have since sued the EPA, arguing that the delay favors industry preference over public health. But yesterday — hours before the Crosby plant exploded — the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion brought by environmental and labor groups to block the Trump administration’s delay of the rule while that lawsuit works its way through the courts, arguing that the groups had not “satisfied the stringent standards for a stay pending court review.”

Judith Enck, former EPA region 2 Regional Administrator, told ThinkProgress via email that the Arkema explosion exemplifies the need for stronger regulations for dangerous chemical plants — especially in areas like the Gulf, which have seen numerous natural disasters in recent years.

“This dangerous situation is a reminder that we need strong environmental regulations and oversight.  Unfortunately, this region experienced Katrina and we know there will be future storms. EPA needs to ensure that chemical companies prevent situations like the one unfolding at Akema,” Enck said.