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Industrial Safety

Chemical Safety Board finalizes investigation into Arkema fires following Tropical Storm Harvey

Agency urges the chemical industry to better prepare for extreme weather

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
June 3, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 23


Photo of an industrial site with flames and plume of black smoke.
Credit: AP
Trailers of organic peroxides exploded and caught fire at Arkema's Crosby, Texas, site on Sept. 1.

The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is calling on chemical companies to better prepare for the growing likelihood of a future of flooding, hurricanes, and extreme weather events. The board’s recommendation springs from fires last year at the Arkema chemical facility in the Houston area during Tropical Storm Harvey.

CSB released its guidance and final report on the Arkema fires on May 24. The Arkema plant makes organic peroxides used to produce consumer goods, such as polystyrene cups and plates.

A facility warehouse stored some 159,000 kg of reactive organic peroxides that needed to be kept at temperatures below freezing to avoid decomposition and combustion. Peroxides are held in relatively small containers to allow for heat dissipation and to prevent self-ignition.

In late August 2017, Harvey stalled over the region, dropping more than 50 cm of rain in the Houston area. As flood waters rose, the warehouse lost primary and backup power. Workers transferred some 10,000 containers holding organic peroxides by hand in driving rain to nine refrigerator trailers. Then the trailers also began to lose power.

Eventually three of the trailers caught fire, and soon the company was forced to ignite the others in a controlled burn. Some 200 nearby residents were evacuated and 21 people, mostly emergency responders, sought medical treatment for smoke inhalation.

What happened to Arkema could happen to other chemical companies, CSB warns in its report.

It urges companies to analyze their susceptibility to extreme weather events by evaluating flood maps and other material to determine if any portions of their plants are vulnerable. Companies should then prepare safeguards based on that analysis. CSB recommends such information be included in a facility’s process safety management program.

The board also recommends that the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS), a nonprofit, industry organization, develop guidance to help companies evaluate the likelihood of weather-related problems and options for how to respond.

In addition, the board repeats a 20-year-old recommendation to EPA to add reactive chemicals, such as organic peroxides, to its list of potentially hazardous substances covered under federal risk management program provisions that call for added facility safeguards.


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