Monday, September 04, 2017

Arkema's Crosby Nightmare: The Price of Ignorance

If you lived within three miles of a chemical plant where dangerous substances were being made or handled, maybe you wouldn't want to know all the details.  But I bet you'd like first responders in the area to know what was there so they could take appropriate actions if anything went wrong. 

Well, Texas is a good place to live in many ways, but about 3,800 people living within a 3-mile radius of the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas probably wish they lived somewhere else right now, that is, if they haven't already evacuated because of the record-breaking floods from Hurricane Harvey.  Because several refrigerated trailers parked at the plant are full of chemicals that must be refrigerated to keep them from exploding.  And as the plant flooded shortly after Harvey hit, the power went out, the trailers started warming up, and one of them has gone up in flames already, sending noxious smoke into the neighborhood and forcing 18 first responders to seek medical attention.  And beyond a few general statements from the plant owners about organic peroxides, the public still doesn't know what is in those trailers.

Here's what apparently happened, as I have gathered from news reports. 

Arkema is a multinational chemical-manufacturing conglomerate based in France.  Its Crosby plant is a few miles northeast of the center of town on U. S. 90, and Crosby is northeast of Houston.  The setting is suburban, not really rural, as the 3,800 people within a 3-mile radius can attest. 

Texans are used to chemical plants.  They provide jobs and tax revenues, and while the smells and other hazards associated with chemical plants are drawbacks, the extreme safety precautions taken by most plant operators mean that millions of dollars' worth of chemicals are produced every day in the state without incident, under normal circumstances.  But Hurricane Harvey was anything but normal.

Organic peroxides are extremely reactive chemicals that are used in the polymerization of plastics, among other processes.  While I am no chemist and don't know any more about them than any other random resident of Crosby, I can well believe that some of them are so reactive that you have to keep them cooler than room temperature or else they will decompose violently, leading to an explosion.  Handling such stuff is a challenge, naturally, sort of like shipping frozen fish around, except instead of spoiling if it warms up, it blows up in your face.  So the plant no doubt has a lot of refrigeration machinery to keep its processes cold enough to preserve the nasty stuff, and refrigerated semi-trailers to take it where it needs to go—namely, other chemical plants that are equipped to keep the chemicals cold until they are used. 

All this has gone on up to now without any major incidents, although Arkema has reportedly been cited by regulators several times in the past for safety infractions.  Then last week came forecasts that Harvey, which was only a tropical depression as late as the Tuesday before it struck, was heading toward the Houston area.

The Arkema operators apparently decided that they ought to shut down the plant and move the existing stock of explosive chemicals off site in trailers.  So at some point before the hurricane hit, they loaded nine refrigerated semi-trailers with volatile chemicals that needed to be kept cool, and connected the refrigeration machinery to the local power utility, which was backed up by emergency power onsite. 

A skeleton crew of 11 stayed through the storm, making sure the power was still on to the trailers and switching to emergency power generators when the local utility power failed.  Then the water started to rise, and on Tuesday Aug. 29, the crew was ordered to evacuate, leaving the trailers behind.  As of today (Sunday, Sept. 3) one trailer has exploded, and the others are expected to go at any time.

At that point, one can question why they didn't take the trailers with them.  A number of reasons come to mind:  (1) they didn't have enough tractors (trucks) to haul them out, (2) the flood waters were so high that it might not have been possible to drive away from the plant in such heavy vehicles, (3) the prospect of dragging potentially explosive stuff all over flooded Houston was worse than leaving it there.  For whatever reason, the crew left the chemicals behind, and shortly thereafter Arkema officials announced that within a few days, the chemicals would of a certainty explode and make quite a mess.

An article in the Austin American-Statesman raises the question of why the contents of the plant have not been made public.  Every such plant has to file what's called a Tier II report detailing the chemicals made or used with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency.  But under current law, it's not easy to gain access to that report.  You have to go to special reading rooms in Federal buildings and you can't photocopy them.  After the 2013 ammonium-nitrate explosion in West, Texas that killed more than a dozen people, the Obama administration proposed requiring the Tier II reports to be in a user-friendly format more widely available to the public.  But manufacturers and Texas regulators opposed this proposal, saying that such information could be used by potential terrorists.  And the new EPA administrator under the Trump administration, Scott Pruitt, has agreed to delay the change by at least two years. 

I said it after West and I'll say it again.  It is stupid that a Tier II report, or something like it, is not made available to first responders near any plant which they might reasonably be expected to respond to.  If you can't trust your local firemen to keep a secret, who can you trust?  And to me, the terrorist excuse sounds phony.  The more likely reason companies don't want Tier II reports released to the public is either out of concerns that competitors will use it, or that environmental protest groups will use the presence of certain chemicals to bring pressure to bear to shut the plant down. 

These concerns are legitimate, but they do not outweigh the needs of those sworn to protect the public from harm, to know what they are up against. 

So far, nobody has died as a result of the Arkema plant explosions.  But there are more trailers waiting to go off, and we still don't know what's in them.

Sources:  I referred to reports on the Arkema explosions and hazards that were carried by Houston TV stations at and  The Sept. 2 print edition of the Austin American-Statesman carried an article by Jeffrey Schwartz entitled "Information scarce on chemical plant blasts," on p. A11.

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