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HOUSTON: The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has released its final investigation report into the August 31, 2017, explosions and fires at the Arkema chemical plant outside of Houston, Texas. The report states that the company did not meet the industry standard for flood protection, and that first responders were put at unnecessary risk. Ironically, this report comes one week after the EPA proposed loosening safety regulations at chemical facilities.
Over the course of Hurricane Harvey last year, the storm killed 68 people and flooded more than 300,000 structures. While water unleashed by the storm coursed through the Houston area, explosions at the Arkema plant injured at least 21 first responders and led to the evacuation of more than 200 residents living within 1.5 miles of the facility.
“This disaster could have been prevented. Arkema's safeguards did not meet company or industry standards,” said Kara Cook-Schultz, Toxics Director for U.S. PIRG. “Companies should use the best safety standards. We need to protect the lives of heroic police officers and firefighters, and protect our neighborhoods.”
CSB determined that the explosions at Arkema were caused by peroxide at the plant getting too hot after refrigeration failed. The same floodwater that caused the facility to lose electrical power also compromised the backup emergency generators, causing the peroxide to heat up and catch on fire.
CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland said, “Our investigation found that there is a significant lack of guidance in planning for flooding or other severe weather events. Based on other government reports, we know that there is a greater likelihood of more severe weather across the country…the chemical industry must be prepared for worst-case scenarios at their facilities.”
Two years ago, the EPA crafted a rule designed to give companies more guidance and encourage cooperation between emergency responders and chemical facilities. However, last week the EPA proposed to scrap that rule, known as the Risk Management Program, before it was ever enacted. The rule included safer technology assessments and third-party audits. The regulations also require increased coordination and sharing of information with first responders. Such regulations could have helped mitigate the Arkema disaster, since first responders on the scene complained of a lack of coordination with the facility.
“This report from the CSB shows how important it is that these facilities coordinate with first responders before an accident occurs,” said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG director. “If more coordination had occurred before Harvey, it is possible that these 21 first responders would not have been injured by the Arkema fires. The EPA should enact the Risk Management Program.”
This is an ongoing issue in Texas and throughout the country. Just last week, an explosion at another chemical plant rocked Pasadena, Texas, injuring more than a dozen people.
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