Quantcast

Hurricane Harvey Arkema Disaster: Scientists Say Chemical Safety Risks Were Preventable

Popular
The flooded Arkema Chemicals plant in Crosby, TX after Hurrican Harvey. Arkema / Facebook

By Charise Johnson

Halloween is right around the corner, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been a perpetual nightmare to public safety since Administrator Scott Pruitt arrived, sending long-awaited chemical safety amendments to an early grave this year.

The Risk Management Plan (RMP) is a vital EPA chemical safety rule that "requires certain facilities to develop plans that identify potential effects of a chemical accident, and take certain actions to prevent harm to the public or the environment"—but delays to the effective date of the long-awaited updates are putting communities, workers and first responders directly in the way of harm, as we have witnessed from recent events following Hurricane Harvey.


Last Friday, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report finding evidence of harm caused to communities by RMP-related incidents in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The report serves as a supporting document in a lawsuit UCS is involved with against the EPA decision to delay the long overdue RMP update. Our objective was to further highlight how, if the improvements to the RMP had been allowed to go into place as planned, damage from chemical plants during Hurricane Harvey could have been diminished. We provided an in-depth analysis of the steps the Arkema facility could have taken with the proposed changes in effect, and estimated the toxic burden that the surrounding community was exposed to.

Additionally, we examined other incidents (i.e. spills, releases, explosions) that occurred at chemical facilities during Hurricane Harvey, as well as emphasizing the disproportionate impacts of chemical incidents on communities of color and low-income communities. I have taken "toxic tours" on Houston's east side with our partners at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), and am all too aware that disparities in distribution of RMP facilities and concentration of toxic pollutants exist and are mostly unnoticed by the unaffected public.

Could Arkema have been avoided?

In late August of this year, Hurricane Harvey unleashed massive quantities of rain upon Houston and surrounding towns, flooding streets, homes—and chemical facilities. As a result, the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, a town 25 miles northeast of Houston, was inundated with floodwater and left without power or working generators. This meant the refrigerators needed for cooling volatile organic peroxides were not operational, which ultimately led to the exploding of 500,000 pounds of the unstable chemicals. Though we cannot say Arkema would not have had an incident, we do know the damage inflicted upon first responders and nearby residents could have been mitigated by implementing the revisions to the chemical safety rule, which would have required:

  • Coordination with local emergency response agencies—RMP has standards that would require industries to coordinate and provide information to emergency responders. This would have likely prevented the Crosby first responders from being exposed to noxious fumes—at the perimeter of the ineffective 1.5-mile evacuation zone, I might add—after the Arkema explosion. A group of injured first responders are now suing the plant for failing to properly warn the responders of the dangers they faced.
  • Analysis of safer technologies and chemicals—The facility would have had to begin research into safer technologies and chemicals for use in their facility, including less volatile chemicals, or safer storing and cooling techniques to preempt an explosion.
  • Root cause analyses—A thorough investigation of past incidents to prevent similar future incidents would have been required of RMP facilities.

Communities are at risk

Real life isn't an action film, where explosions abound and the dogged hero emerges from a fiery building unscathed, nary a casualty to be found. In real life, the consequences of a chemical explosion, leak or spill are often dangerous and deadly. We have ways to hold chemical facilities accountable for taking necessary preventative measures, but we must urge the EPA to implement the changes to the proposed RMP rule in order to do so.

Charise Johnson is a research associate in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The view from the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, Michigan. Ken Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Sierra Searcy

This week, progressive Democrats and youth advocates are launching a nationwide tour to win support for the Green New Deal. Though popular, the ambitious plan to tackle climate change has struggled to earn the endorsement of centrist Democrats in Rust Belt states like Michigan, the second stop on the tour.

Read More Show Less
Mike Taube / Getty Images

If you are looking for something to do this Easter weekend, why not visit your nearest national park? All sites run by the National Park Service (NPS) will be free Saturday, April 20 as this year's National Park Week kicks off, USA Today reported.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A new EPA rule on asbestos does not say anything about the asbestos currently in the environment. Bob Allen / Getty Images

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed a new rule on asbestos Wednesday that it says will "close the door" on new, unapproved uses. But public health advocates warn the rule could actually open the door to increased use of the carcinogenic fibrous material.

Read More Show Less
Cavan Images / Getty Images

Earth Day is celebrated each year on April 22nd. The official theme of Earth Day 2019 is 'Protect Our Species.' In honor of Earth Day, EcoWatch has kicked off a second photo contest. Show us what 'Protect Our Species' means to you. Maybe there's a tree you've always loved, or perhaps it's a photo of the bird you adore that always visits your yard. We're excited to see what species means a lot to you. Capture a moment and send it our way!

Read More Show Less
A mountain woodland caribou bull in the Muskwa-Kechika Wilderness area in northern British Columbia, Canada. John E Marriott / All Canada Photos / Getty Images

It's heartening, in the midst of the human-caused sixth mass extinction, to find good wildlife recovery news. As plant and animal species disappear faster than they have for millions of years, Russia's Siberian, or Amur, tigers are making a comeback. After falling to a low of just a few dozen in the mid-20th century, the tigers now number around 500, with close to 100 cubs — thanks to conservation measures that include habitat restoration and an illegal hunting crackdown.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Anton Petrus / Moment / Getty Images

By Jordan Davidson

The climate crisis humanity has caused has us spiraling towards higher temperatures while also knocking out marine life and insect species at an alarming rate that continues to accelerate. But, just how long will it take Earth to recover? A new study offers a sobering answer: millions of years.

Read More Show Less
Climate protesters read a newspaper as they stand with the Extinction Rebellion boat in the center of Oxford Circus on April 17 in London. Leon Neal / Getty Images

By Jeremy Lent

Facing oncoming climate disaster, some argue for "Deep Adaptation" — that we must prepare for inevitable collapse. However, this orientation is dangerously flawed. It threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy by diluting the efforts toward positive change. What we really need right now is Deep Transformation. There is still time to act: we must acknowledge this moral imperative.

Read More Show Less
A phytoplankton bloom in the Gulf of Alaska on June 9, 2016. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

By Julia Conley

The equipment was towed across millions of miles of ocean for six decades by marine scientists, meant to collect plankton — but its journeys have also given researchers a treasure trove of data on plastic pollution.

The continuous plankton reporter (CPR) was first deployed in 1931 to analyze the presence of plankton near the surface of the world's oceans. In recent decades, however, its travels have increasingly been disrupted by entanglements with plastic, according to a study published in Nature Communications on Tuesday.

Read More Show Less