Arkema chemicals and Houston’s hurricane disaster

From ToxicLeaks

History of Arkema Group[edit | edit source]

Arkema Group is an international chemicals manufacturer based near Paris, France, with a presence in nearly 50 countries. The chemical major emerged following the reorganization of France’s Total and its chemical division in 2004, with a global market-leading focus in three business segments: industrial specialties, coating solutions and high performance materials. The latter arm includes adhesives, resins, surfactants, and the liquid organic peroxides at the center of the environmental crisis that unfolded after Hurricane Harvey hit Crosby, Texas in August 2017. Arkema reports €7.5 billion in sales for 2016.

Arkema also operates facilities in Canada and Mexico, while the Crosby facility is one of 34 production locations in the United States. The organic peroxides produced there are used in making PVC for pipes, automotive industry parts and coatings, polysterene cups and packaging, and solid countertops. While the company touts a USD$700,000 investment in better environmental controls – particularly emissions and air quality – it has been fined twice in recent years for violations involving the organic peroxides. That record includes a 2006 fire caused by improper storage of the volatile, temperature-sensitive chemicals, a situation that was destined to repeat itself when Texas took a direct hit from the storm.

Impacts of Hurricane Harvey in Houston[edit | edit source]

The National Hurricane Center in the United States issued the first advisory for a potential tropical cyclone on the morning of August 17, 2017, and named the storm later that day – yet by the time it crossed the Yucatan Peninsula with heavy rains, it had dissipated. A final advisory was issued from Miami on August 20, with no additional warnings until August 23 when it was clear the storm had regenerated over the Gulf of Mexico. The storm rapidly intensified before making landfall on August 25.

Texas officials say Hurricane Harvey claimed 82 lives, and destroyed or damaged nearly 140,000 homes. The Category 4 hurricane brought storm surge, with rainfall that broke all continental U.S. records for a single storm when 1.32 meters of rain fell at Cedar Bayou, Texas. Catastrophic flooding followed as it rained for days in Houston, Galveston and Beaumont, and across a region that is home to the nation’s greatest concentration of oil and petrochemical operations. The 52-mile Houston Ship Channel is lined by 10 refineries, accounting for 27 percent of the nation’s petrol and 60 percent of aviation fuel. The region also is home to about 200 petrochemical plants. Arkema’s facility at Crosby was among them.

Chemical crisis at Arkema’s Crosby plant[edit | edit source]

Crosby, 25 miles way on the northeastern outskirts of Houston, saw the same levels of flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Arkema officials say they site was inundated by nearly two meters of rain that caused extensive cleanup and damage, but the greater problem with the organic peroxides was the extensive storm-related power outage that began there on August 27. Arkema officials were reluctant to provide details, but finally released product material safety data sheets (MSDS) for peroxides including, among others: bis (2-ethylhexyl) peroxydicarbonate, tert-butyl 2-ethylhexaneperoxoate; 1-methyl-1-phenylethyl hydroperoxide, and 1,1-dimethylethyl ester neodecaneperoxoic acid. They have different storage requirements, but all told there were at least 225 metric tons of peroxides stored on site that are highly volatile unless refrigerated. With the power out, Arkema moved the organic peroxides into nine storage trailers and ran the refrigeration on generator power until August 28, when they failed too.

Federal and local authorities, already aware of the risk of fire and explosion, set up a perimeter zone of 2.4 kilometers on August 30 and evacuated all employees and residents living in that area; there are about 4,000 who live within a 4.8-kilometer radius, many of whom had complained of chemical smells across the region. Arkema officials explained that there was no strategy for neutralizing the peroxides, and they expected them to explode and cause fires producing thick, black and potentially toxic smoke.

The first of those fires occurred on August 31, followed by a second. On September 3, Arkema said it “took proactive action” in coordination with fire officials and intentionally set the remaining storage trailers containing the organic peroxide on fire. The site was declared secure once they burned out.

Toxic exposure and first responder lawsuit[edit | edit source]

The first lawsuits against Arkema, relating to the Hurricane Harvey incident, were filed in early September 2017. Seven first responders alleged in the suit that although the company property is located in a designated flood plain, Arkema failed to adequately plan for a disaster that local officials, industry experts and environmental activists have long seen coming. "This has happened before," the lawsuit said. "As a matter of fact, this has happened so many times before that most industries, private businesses and even governmental agencies have put in place physical structures and written procedures to prevent harm and damage to their properties and the people in their communities."

The plaintiffs claim serious injuries from the company’s misrepresentation of the chemicals and their risk, and their failure to adequately plan what they described as chaos. Police officers and fire personnel immediately fell ill in the roadway, vomiting and unable to breathe from the toxic fumes. Emergency medical services crews who responded to render assistance got sick as soon as they arrived on scene. Some officers, unable to leave their cars or their service weapons, drove themselves to the hospital.

The suit, providing quite a different account from Arkema’s, said the controlled fires sent plumes of smoke, ash, chemicals and compounds that could be seen for miles, all falling on the nearby homes.

EPA, other inquiries into Arkema operations[edit | edit source]

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had not inspected the Arkema Crosby site under the EPA risk management program since 2003 – some 14 years before the Hurricane Harvey disaster forced them to. In a Bloomberg interview, officials said that there are not enough inspectors to cover the 12,500 sites in the program, and at the rate they are completed, it would take 35 years to inspect all of the facilities.

However, the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) were quick to launch an investigation into what happened at Arkema, including air quality tests and water samples taken from the site to check for toxic chemical exposure. The air quality measurements for 78 different chemicals, taken from an aviation unit, found trace amounts of peroxide and butane on site and in the local area. Six samples of surface water runoff at Arkema were beneath a threshold for further investigation, the EPA said. The federal agency said it completed its work in support of local officials on September 8.

Arkema has complied with EPA’s five-year filing requirements for risk management plans, most recently in 2014. The firm was not required to disclose the organic peroxides, but did record a massive amount of anhydrous sulfur dioxide on site that, in an emergency, threatens 1 million people within 37 kilometers. In 2016, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) filed 10 serious violations against Arkema, nine of them for the management and handling of hazardous chemicals at Crosby.

Failures of regulatory oversight[edit | edit source]

TCEQ and Harris County Pollution Control, the local authority for Houston and surrounding communities, continued to investigate the Arkema plant. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board announced on August 31, 2017, that it also was opening an investigation into practices at Arkema in the wake of the tragic toxic exposure – including the specific chemicals stored there, and what chemical processes are used on site.

Meanwhile, Arkema issued a September 11 statement, saying that “while regretting the impact caused to people who had to be evacuated,” the company “reaffirms that it took, right from the outset, the necessary measures, in liaison with the local authorities, to ensure the safety of local residents and the first responders.” Arkema added that the firm “will defend itself to assert its rights and its good faith.”

For many people in Texas who have warned of an impending catastrophe – and the investigative reporters and environmental activists seeking to prevent it – the Arkema incident illustrates the failure of U.S. and state authorities to protect people from the petrochemical companies. On August 23 – just two days before Hurricane Harvey arrived – the Texas Tribune published an interview with the award-winning Juan Parras. The Houston environmental justice activist offers “toxic tours” to demonstrate the disparities between what officials say they are doing to regulate the petrochemical industries and make the nation’s fourth largest city more sustainable, and the reality lived by poor communities near them. That’s not just true in Houston, but perhaps even more in the hard-hit Beaumont-Port Arthur region too.

A 2016 report by the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and Texans for Public Justice found that the three state oil and gas regulators raised $11 million in recent years, 60 percent of which came from the industries they’re charged with monitoring,” the piece said. A 2017 report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that Texas penalizes only 3 percent of the illegal pollution releases reported by companies. In January 2017, the EPA published a new Chemical Disaster Rule that would tighten U.S. industry restrictions; the incoming Trump administration placed a 20-month freeze on any implementation.

In Texas, it comes as no surprise that Arkema lobbied against them.