Sustained Outrage

Storms, chemical safety and appeals courts

The Arkema Inc. chemical plant is flooded from Tropical Storm Harvey, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Crosby, Texas. The plant, about 25 miles (40.23 kilometers) northeast of Houston, lost power and its backup generators amid Harvey’s dayslong deluge, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)

 

The Arkema Inc. chemical plant is flooded from Tropical Storm Harvey, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Crosby, Texas. The plant, about 25 miles (40.23 kilometers) northeast of Houston, lost power and its backup generators amid Harvey’s dayslong deluge, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)

As if things weren’t bad enough for people living in the Houston area, there’s this happening:

A fire broke out at the Arkema plant in Crosby early Thursday, following chemical explosions overnight that sent plumes of black smoke into the air.

Arkema officials warned that more explosions should be expected because there are eight additional containers of the same product at the plant, which is 25 miles northeast of downtown Houston.

… Crosby officials had been bracing for days for explosions at the Arkema plant where floodwaters knocked out power and generators needed to keep chemicals stored at the facility cool.

What’s absolutely remarkable is this, from that Houston Chronicle story:

The Arkema facility was among the Houston-area sites with the highest potential for harm in an incident, according to a 2016 analysis by the O’Connor Process Safety Center and the Houston Chronicle. That analysis factored risks based on the amount and type of dangerous chemicals on site and their proximity to the public.

The volatile chemicals involved in the reaction are organic peroxides, according the company, which can become flammable at warm temperatures.

At a press news conference Wednesday, Rich Rowe, Arkema’s CEO, said that if the volatile organic peroxides stored at the plant get too warm, some sort of explosion will happen.

“There is no way to prevent an explosion or fire,” Rowe said. He refused to release the company’s federally mandated risk management plan or its chemical inventory to reporters.

Let’s be clear about that last part:

He refused to release the company’s federally mandated risk management plan or its chemical inventory to reporters.

Just a few hours before all of this, a federal appeals court in Washington was issuing this short ruling, in which it declined to temporarily block the Trump administration’s delay of an update of an important U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule on chemical plant safety. The temporary delay would have kept the EPA rule in place while the case was being litigated.

If you want to understand what this is all about, watch that U.S. Chemical Safety Board video about the terrible disaster at West, Texas.

Then, remember that the Obama administration stalled and delayed any real moves to try to prevent another such disaster until the final months of their second term. And then understand that even once the EPA finalized an updated chemical plant safety rule, it was far less than what safety advocates and experts said was really needed. Read this great account of the situation from the Houston paper.  Also remember that, along the way, President Obama got rid of then-U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, one of the few within the government who was advocating for a much broader and complete approach to improving chemical plant safety.

So really, it wasn’t too far of a jump for the Trump EPA to be moving to delay the Obama agency’s timid approach to the rulemaking. Or for the Trump administration to propose a budget that would get rid of the CSB altogether.

And for those reading this in West Virginia, you might be interested to know that Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is among those who filed to intervene in the lawsuit to help defend the Trump EPA’s delay of that rule.