Latest News 2017 December Lack of Accountability Led to Crosby Chemical Explosion

Lack of Accountability Led to Crosby Chemical Explosion

On August 28, Richard Rowe—Arkema's CEO—warned nearby residents of Crosby, TX that the local plant was going to explode in the next six days. The plant, which makes highly-volatile organic peroxides, was caught in the flooding that devastated Houston in August. Due to Hurricane Harvey, the refrigeration units in the plant had been rendered inoperable—and led to the fast degradation of the organic peroxides.

Rowe went on to explain that workers attempted to move the peroxides to backup refrigeration units powered by emergency generators, but the generators also failed during the flooding. He assured residents that the environmental impact would be "minimal."

However, independent experts noted that factories that work with organic peroxides usually have another option during rapid degradation: render the peroxides inert with a chemical extinguisher. In 2016, a Texas A&M report even identified the Arkema site as a particularly high-risk location in the event of a disaster.

So why didn't Arkema have a failsafe in place?

Lack of Regulations & Safety

Less than a week after the warning, the Crosby plant ignited, just as Rowe forewarned. The fires were extinguished within 7 days, allowing residents to return to their flooded homes without fear of chemical exposure. Regardless, it revealed troubling disconnections between federal environmental safety requirements and what is actually needed to keep people and environments safe.

For one thing, Arkema was never required by federal officials to discuss the safety hazards of the volatile chemicals that were causing fires the same week Hurricane Harvey was flooding the region—not even in their emergency plans. There are dozens of chemicals produced in the United States that could potentially cause an explosion in the event of a natural or man-made disaster—and a whole class of them are overlooked by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The chemical industry has been largely allowed to hold itself accountable—and situations like this one show that the industry is making life dangerous for surrounding communities through failed accountability. If it weren't for a last-minute effort by Arkema's 11-man "ride out" team to separate the volatile chemicals from stores of sulfur dioxide, the fires might have affected up to one million residents in a 1,600 mile radius.

As recently as 2009, Arkema identified its Crosby plant as susceptible to flooding—but did nothing to update its emergency preparedness. Backup generators could have been raised above flood levels, but they weren't. Volatile chemicals could have been isolated from wind or water, but they weren't. Arkema's approach seemed to be "point out problems, but don't fix them."

We Need to Be Prepared

The number of devastating hurricanes in the last 15 years has left areas of the United States in poverty and disrepair. If we're going to adequately prepare for natural disasters, chemical plants need to take their emergency protocols seriously. The petrochemical industry and other chemical manufacturers are based near the coast for economic reasons—but if being near the coast also puts communities at severe risk, then corporations need to act accordingly.

It begins with preparing for the worst, and remaining accountable to the people who live near their plants and refineries.

Categories: Toxic Torts, Negligence