Energy & Environment

After Arkema Fires, Investigators Call For Better Storm Protections At Chemical Plants

“More robust industry guidance is needed to help hazardous chemical facilities better prepare for extreme weather events,” a federal investigation found

Burned-out trailers sit at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, after Harvey flooded the plant and caused organic peroxides stored in the trailers to catch fire.

Federal investigators say chemical plants across the country need tougher safeguards against hurricanes and flooding.

The recommendation comes as part of a final report on fires that broke out at a Houston-area plant that was flooded by Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented rainfall.

In the report, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said the insurer for the Arkema, Inc. plant in Crosby had warned about flood risks a year before the storm, noting the facility sits in a floodplain. But the report found employees there were never given that information.

“I think the failure here was that people, not just Arkema, but industry in general, didn’t evaluate sufficiently the risk of this extreme flooding,” said CSB Investigator in Charge Mark Wingard.

Organic peroxides that were stored at the Arkema plant needed to be cooled below a certain temperature to avoid catching fire. The chemicals burst into flames after the plant lost power and the refrigerators failed.

At least 21 first responders suffered from exposure to toxic fumes and were taken to a nearby hospital. According to the CSB’s report, police officers were found vomiting at the scene.

The company is facing multiple lawsuits from some of those first responders, nearby residents and local counties.  Harris County prosecutors are also looking into criminal charges against the company or its employees.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said Thursday the county will present evidence to a grand jury in the coming weeks.

CSB Safety Video about the 2017 Fire at the Arkema Chemical Plant in Crosby, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey:

In a statement, Arkema said it was pleased with the CSB’s report, which the company said “accurately depicts the unforeseeable nature of the situation” from the six feet of water that flooded the plant. In Harvey’s immediate aftermath, Arkema CEO Rich Rowe apologized to nearby residents, saying that despite the company’s preparations for the storm, “no one anticipated we’d be looking at a site with six feet of water on it.”

The company said its employees, some of whom moved increasingly-unstable chemicals by hand during the storm in an effort to keep them cooled, went to “extraordinary lengths, under difficult conditions” to keep the facility safe.

Still, the investigation report noted the company could have done more to address flooding risks before the storm.

“None of Arkema’s safeguards used to address electrical power failure met company or industry standards for analyzing independent protection layers for Harvey-level flooding,” the report read.

The CSB, which has no regulatory authority, said the Environmental Protection Agency should require companies to prevent hazards from self-combusting chemicals. It also called on industry to step up its own standards for emergency planning.

“More robust industry guidance is needed to help hazardous chemical facilities better prepare for extreme weather events, such as flooding, hurricanes, snowstorms, tornadoes, or droughts,” the report said.

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