Emergency generators and additional back-up cooling systems at the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, are now known to have both failed during flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey last week. Though it is not known yet exactly what caused the explosions of organic peroxides at the chemical plant, the failure of the systems leads to questions about whether the plant was receiving regular inspections from the EPA as it should have been, writes TriplePundit. In fact, an Arkema company official told Bloomberg BNA that it had not been inspected under the EPA’s risk management program since 2003.
Now, a lawsuit filed by first responders – who say they were made sick by the fumes that spread after the explosions – alleges that it was a series of negligent decisions on the part of Arkema that led to the explosions and subsequent health issues, writes The Atlantic.
The chemical plant lost power during the storm; without functioning back-up cooling systems, the plant had no means to cool the volatile chemicals it stores. It is unclear whether the plant was up to date on its risk assessment protocol, but the company is known to have been up to date with submitting its risk management plan to the EPA, having filed its most recent one for that facility in 2014. The plan identified the risk of power outages and power surges, and outlined its backup power supply measures.
The questions surrounding the Arkema plant explosions have Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) more concerned than ever about EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and how he is overseeing the agency. Carper has been critical of Pruitt’s plan to reduce the EPA’s role in regulating chemical manufacturing plants. In a letter sent to Pruitt on Sept. 1, the senator points out that the agency has only about 30 inspectors who must perform inspections of about 12,500 facilities in the program, according to Bloomberg. The failure of the plant’s backup measures outlined in its 2014 risk management plan clearly “raise questions related to the sufficiency of Arkema’s plan and its implementation,” wrote Carper.
The Arkema plant was fined more than $91,000 for issues including insufficient equipment testing and failure to maintain equipment safety systems in 2016; those issues were meant to have been addressed last year and so may not have played a role in last week’s system failures.
Ultimately, the disaster at Arkema’s Crosby plant could have been worse, but an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, showed that almost a million pounds of air pollutants – including benzene, sulfur dioxide, toluene and xylene – were released from the Houston area’s hundreds of refineries and petrochemical operations, and ultimate effects may not be known for months.
Bloomberg warns that what happened there could be replicated in Florida when Hurricane Irma arrives in force. The article points out the location of a pair of nuclear generators (in Homestead), plants that produce potentially explosive ammonia (near Tallahassee), and phosphate mines (rural communities not far from the Gulf Coast) as potential areas for disaster.
In June of this year, Pruitt delayed implementing the more stringent Chemical Disaster Rule provisions – put into place by former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy – until 2019. The EDF is urging Pruitt to immediately reinstate the safeguards.