If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


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
May 25, 2018

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 to companies and final report on the Arkema fires at a Houston briefing May 24. The Arkema plant manufactures and distributes organic peroxides used to produce consumer goods, such as solid surface countertops and polystyrene cups and plates.

In late August 2017, the Houston area faced days of record rainfall as Harvey stalled over the region, dropping some 50 cm of rain. Although the Arkema facility is spread across a plain that has flooded in the past, it had never experienced storms of this magnitude, according to CSB.

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 also stored in relatively small containers to allow for heat dissipation and to prevent self-ignition.

As flood waters rose more than 1.5 meters, the warehouse lost primary and backup power. Workers had to transfer 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 and contained 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, adding past weather may not predict the future in today’s environment.

CSB did not issue recommendations for specific fixes to avoid weather-related chemical accidents. Instead, it urges that companies 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.

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

CSB has already reached out to CCPS and received a “very enthusiastic and receptive response,” says CSB member Kristen Kulinowski. CCPS has been working on guidance, she says, and historically, CCPS material has been widely adopted by industry and regulators.

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



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.