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Texas flood shows need for chemical safety rule, advocates say

Activists point to fires at Arkema plant

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
September 7, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 36

The flooded plant of French chemical maker Arkema SA, which produces organic peroxides, is seen after fires were reported at the facilty after Tropical Storm Harvey passed in Crosby, Texas, U.S. August 31, 2017.
Credit: Adrees Latif/REUTERS/Newscom
Arkema's plant in Crosby, Texas, flooded and lost power in Tropical Storm Harvey.

Industrial safety advocates and Texas residents say a flood-related accident and fires at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, underscores the need for a stalled worker and community safety regulation.

Issued by the Obama Administration in January and blocked by the Trump Environmental Protection Agency in March, that regulation would require chemical safety improvements at industrial plants.

If fully implemented, the new regulation would require greater public disclosure from companies that use large amounts of toxic chemicals, notes Yvette Arellano, spokesperson with TEJAS, the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, a community-based nonprofit. The rule would also call for companies to conduct root-cause analysis after an accident, she adds.

When it postponed the regulation, EPA reopened discussions of what the final rule should require. This reexamination won’t be complete until February 2019, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said.

Pruitt attributed the delay to opposition to the rule from companies. Among them is Arkema, which filed comments against the regulation. Several states, labor unions, and community groups are challenging EPA’s move in court. Chemical companies and some states, on the other hand, are backing Pruitt.

Advocates say the rule, if implemented, would have a made a difference when Tropical Storm Harvey brought heavy rains that flooded the Crosby plant and killed backup electricity generators used to maintain refrigeration of some 225 metric tons of organic peroxides at the facility. The reactive peroxides decompose with heat, and at Arkema, they begin to burn. Eventually, the facility’s managers ordered fire set to the remaining stock of these substances to limit the possibility of explosion.

If the regulation had been in place, says Gretchen Goldman, a research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the public and emergency responders would have had more information about Arkema’s substances. Also, the regulation would have required the company to investigate and possibly implement safer alternatives to its current chemicals and manufacturing approaches, she adds.

As required under the Clean Air Act, Arkema filed a risk management plan with EPA that identifies the potential effects of a chemical accident, identifies steps the facility is taking to prevent an accident, and spells out emergency response procedures should an accident occur. The plan is required for companies that handle certain extremely hazardous chemicals and is to be updated every five years. Arkema did not consider the decomposition of the organic peroxides in its plan because these chemicals are not covered by risk management plans. The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) since 2002 has recommended that EPA require companies to include peroxides and other reactive chemicals in risk management plans, but the agency has not complied.

CSB is investigating the Arkema accident.

At a Sept. 4 briefing, Rich Rowe, president and CEO of Arkema’s U.S. operations, was reluctant to discuss what the company could have done differently to avoid the accident. He said Arkema will examine “the way we prepared and the decisions we made as we moved through the crisis.” He pledged to work with CSB “to assess what went well and what didn’t.”


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