Texas chemical plant failed to take necessary precautions despite warnings, investigators find

Independent agency delivers crucial report as Trump seeks to gut chemical safety regulations.

The Arkema plant received major damage from flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey on September 4, 2017 in Crosby, Texas. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
The Arkema plant received major damage from flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey on September 4, 2017 in Crosby, Texas. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

After reviewing the handling of a crisis at a chemical plant near Houston last August, federal investigators determined the chemical industry needs to work much harder at preparing for severe weather events, especially in areas prone to extreme flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes.

A new report, released Thursday by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, focused on the Arkema chemical plant — located in a flood-prone areas of Crosby, Texas — that caught fire and exploded after Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast region in 2017.

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Arkema, a French multinational company that manufactures chemicals used to create plastic products, was not prepared for the flooding from Hurricane Harvey that wiped out the facility’s power and backup generators, the report said. This is despite Arkema officials having been warned the facility was at risk of flooding a year before Harvey hit.

“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,” Chemical Safety Board Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland said Thursday in a statement. “We cannot stop the storms, but working together, we can mitigate the damage and avoid a future catastrophic incident.”

Earlier this week, Sutherland announced she will be resigning from her top position at the Chemical Safety Board in June. The agency’s board members will be required to vote on an interim executive until President Trump nominates, and the Senate confirms, a new chairperson.

The chemical safety board is an independent agency that Trump has proposed to eliminate, even though it performs valuable investigations of chemical accidents. The board released its report on the Arkema chemical plant one week after Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed to roll back chemical safety standards put into place during the Obama administration to protect first responders and people who live near chemical plants.

The Chemical Disaster Rule, targeted for elimination by Pruitt, was the EPA’s central response mechanism to a disaster at another Texas plant — the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that killed 15 people.

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In response to the report on the Arkema incident, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the Chemical Safety Board’s recommendations are especially important following the EPA’s recent “dangerous proposal” to weaken the Chemical Disaster Rule.

“We saw in Crosby, West, and countless other towns what can happen without strong safety and security requirements for chemical facilities,” Pallone said Thursday in a statement. “The EPA should abandon this dangerous proposal, and instead work to improve protections for workers and vulnerable communities.”

The Trump administration also is working hard to avoid incorporating sea level rise and extreme modeling into the government’s preparedness efforts. Under Trump, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) no longer mentions climate change in its strategic plan. The plan guides the agency’s response to hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires through 2022.

The FEMA plan fails to link last year’s record-setting disasters to the changing climate and does not mention that natural disasters exacerbated by global warming are expected to become more frequent and severe as temperatures rise, Inside Climate News reported in March.

In his statement, Pallone also emphasized that climate change and extreme weather have the potential to increase risks to workers and vulnerable communities around chemical and other dangerous facilities, which too often are low-income communities and communities of color.

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Along with its investigative report, the Chemical Safety Board released a new safety video about the incident at the Arkema plant titled “Caught in the Storm: Extreme Weather Hazards.”

At the Arkema plant, the fires and explosions in the wake of Hurricane Harvey released toxic chemicals in the surrounding community. The Chemical Safety Board learned that officials at Arkema plant were told the facility was at risk of flooding a year before Hurricane Harvey’s deluge resulted in a chemical fire at the plant.

In fact, the company’s insurers warned of the high potential for flooding. But the investigation found that plant officials based their flooding preparation plans on memories of long-term employees rather than more sophisticated estimates.

A report released in 2016 by insurer Swiss Re — a year before Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area — concluded that companies are increasingly relying on the memories of their employees. The Chemical Safety Board cited the Swiss Re report, noting that “this attitude was prevalent at the Arkema Crosby facility as well, with flooding expectations based on employee memories of previous rain events and how they had affected the facility.”

“Reliance on personal experience, which has a limit of several decades, is an unreliable method of risk evaluation,” the board said in the report.

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In a statement, Arkema refused to accept any responsibility for the disaster at its chemical plant. A company spokeswoman said in a statement that it was pleased with the board’s investigation because it “accurately depicts the unforeseeable nature of the situation Arkema faced during Hurricane Harvey.”

More than 200 residents living near the facility were evacuated and could not return home for a week. Twenty-one people sought medical attention from reported exposures to the fumes and smoke released into the air.

The Chemical Safety Board can offer recommendations and guidance, but it cannot fine or punish a company based on its findings. Harris County, Texas District Attorney Kim Ogg said Thursday that evidence, including findings in the report, will be presented in the coming weeks as part of the county’s lawsuit against Arkema, the Houston Chronicle reported Thursday.