Houston Chemical Plant Explosions Caused by Natural Disasters Underscore Weak Chemical Safety Measures

Hurricane Harvey caused devastating destruction to the Texas coast, from homes to infrastructure to businesses. Unfortunately, because the region is the site of many manufacturing plants, the impact is having far-reaching affect. The explosions at the flooded Crosby, TX, Arkema chemical plant which manufactures organic peroxides is a case in point.

Fires started when the area was flooded and the backup generators failed, eliminating the refrigeration required to keep the chemicals from degrading and catching fire. A buffer zone around the plant was established, employees were sent home and some 5,000 people living nearby were warned to evacuate. Plumes of toxic black smoke shrouded the area as more than two tons of material exploded.

Despite this, the company was slow to release a list of the chemical inventory to authorities and refused to reveal where those substances were stored. Based on the plant’s history this is not surprising: records show that state and federal regulators have cited Arkema for numerous safety and environmental violations at the Crosby plant for more than a decade, with eight “serious” safety violations in the last year alone. Yet the violations continue.

In the end, Arkema performed a controlled burn of six trailers containing the organic peroxide in order to allow workers to enter the facility and begin the cleanup process.

All chemical facilities are required by National Fire Code Regulations to provide a list of chemicals on-site and their locations to local fire departments annually. Emergency responders need to know how to respond effectively and safely to emergencies just such as this. Yet Arkema continued to conceal these facts even with the media spotlight on their reluctance to do so. Now the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) – which was almost dissolved and is still on shaky budgetary ground – has begun an investigation. But will their findings and the resulting fines be just a slap on the wrist for Arkema and will the violations continue? “Chemical safety” seems to be an oxymoron for so many chemical manufacturers.

For an in-depth look at the incident, take a look at Attorney David Halperin’s article in the Huffington Post.

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