Questions on Arkema's Policies Arise As More Crosby Plant Explosions Inevitable [UPDATED]

Arkema Inc., nestled in Crosby just outside of Houston, has already had one explosion and there will be more to come, according to company officials.
Arkema Inc., nestled in Crosby just outside of Houston, has already had one explosion and there will be more to come, according to company officials. Image from Google Maps
Update 6 p.m. September 1, 2017: Click2Houston is reporting with video that the Crosby plant is on fire right now.

The Arkema Inc. ammonia plant is still expected to explode any time now. Meanwhile, questions are beginning to emerge about why Arkema officials opted to leave thousands of gallons of organic peroxide, a highly combustible chemical that has to be kept cold or else it erupts in flames, in storage vans scattered around the site in Crosby, about 25 miles southeast of Houston.

A site that is located in a flood plain.

In other words, why are we now in a situation where the only recourse is to wait for the rest of the organic peroxide at the Crosby site to degrade, heat up and explode?

According to Rich Rowe, president and CEO of Arkema Inc. the scenario Arkema now finds itself in was inevitable due to the severity of Hurricane Harvey and the swift increase of flood waters last weekend.

The first — and so far only — explosion occurred after 1 a.m. Thursday when one of the nine trailers containing liquid organic peroxide exploded and caught fire at the Arkena facility, sending plumes of black smoke streaming into the air for roughly nine hours, as we've previously reported.

On Friday morning Rowe held a press teleconference that began to shed some light on how Arkema got into this situation, dragging state and local officials and the public along for the ride.

The facility was closed a week ago with just a skeleton crew of 11 employees left on the site when the floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey began to rise to unprecedented levels, Rowe says. Before this storm, the company had believed that the generators, the backup generators and the storage vans equipped with nitrogen cooling units would cover any issues that came up if the facility lost power.

The company had also assumed that it would not ever have a flood of this magnitude on the property, despite the fact that the facility is located in a floodplain and that they've been stationed on the Texas Gulf Coast for 20 years, long enough to have noted that we tend to get hurricanes and flooding around here. However, the waters rose up to six feet in the facility, cutting off power and forcing the company to evacuate its remaining employees.

While some have asked why the 18-wheeler vans of chemicals were not simply hooked to trucks and hauled out of harm's way, Rowe says there was concern the trucks might get stuck on a highway where the risk of someone being nearby if and when the peroxide exploded would be even greater.

Instead, Arkema employees left the storage vans filled with organic peroxide on three different sites around the property, areas that were on higher ground, according to Rowe. And then they notified state and local officials about the situation, including the fact that more than 500,000 gallons of organic peroxide had been left to heat up and catch fire on the site, and that the company has quantities of other chemicals classified as risk management tier 2. (This means the company does not have to publicly disclose what the chemicals are, where they are located or the quantity that is on the property.)

Based on this information, officials mandated a mandatory evacuation for a 1.5-mile radius around the plant, Rowe explained, though he never said why that makes sense, aside from the potential issues of smoke inhalation. It's also worth noting that he never missed a chance to urge people to stay out of that 1.5-mile zone until they are cleared to return by authorities. Even owners of horses and other livestock in the zone are not being allowed to go back and take care of their animals.

Despite Rowe's apologies — he started off the press conference by thanking and apologizing to just about everyone — and efforts at transparency on Friday morning, the Crosby plant has had signs of issues before now. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — an entity not exactly known for being strict when it comes to environmental violations — has issued penalties against the Arkema Crosby facility twice.

In 2006, the facility was subjected to penalties stemming from a fire due to inappropriately stored organic peroxides. The fire led to the discharge of 3,200 pounds of volatile organic compounds along with other harmful pollutants. In 2011, the facility was subjected to penalties for failure to maintain proper temperatures of the thermal oxidizer.

On top of that, while Arkema is now claiming to be enthusiastic about safety and regulations right now, just last January the company filed comments arguing against the federal Chemical Disaster Rule proposed by then federal Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy.

Specifically, Arkema was less than thrilled about requirements to have a third party audit of any incidents at a chemical plant and a requirement to share information about what is actually in a plant with emergency responders and the public in general. Of course, once Scott Pruitt took over at the EPA, the rule was suspended anyway.

And as to how things stand right now, Rowe says that the water is beginning to recede but even once they can access the plant again, it won't be safe to return to the site until the containers of organic peroxide have burned themselves out.

The company does not keep any neutralizers for the chemicals on the property. Its explanation for that policy is that the chemicals are kept in many different places in small quantities around the property, which makes it impractical for the company to get it everywhere at once. Rowe acknowledged Arkema will be examining its own safety policies in detail once the immediate crisis is resolved. Plus, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has announced it will also be investigating what happened at Arkema, so there's going to be plenty of scrutiny moving forward.

At this point Arkema officials do not expect to be able to restore electricity or to restart the nitrogen cooling in the storage vans full of peroxide remotely. It's also unclear if doing so would stop the chemical breakdown that is leading the materials to explode and catch fire in the first place.

Following the fire, the federal Environmental Protection Agency sent aerial surveillance aircraft to test resulting smoke and did ground-level air quality monitoring. The EPA’s plane instrumentation is capable of measuring 78 different chemicals, including peroxides. Neither testing method found toxic concentration levels in areas away from the evacuated facility, so that's good news.

Rowe has stated that Arkema expects more explosions from the other eight trailers, each packed with 36,000 gallons of organic peroxide in plastic containers packed into cardboard boxes, roughly 500,000 gallons of the chemicals in total, as the chemicals continue to degrade, heat up and explode.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray