Explosions and fires at a Houston-area chemical plant triggered an evacuation Thursday in a region still in chaos from Hurricane Harvey — and generated new criticism of President Donald Trump’s efforts to repeal the industry’s safety rules.
Thursday morning’s blasts at the plant came just a day after a federal court refused to force the Environmental Protection Agency to implement an Obama-era chemical safety regulation that the Trump administration has delayed until 2019. The site’s owner, Arkema, has complained about the burdens of the rule, which the EPA created after a 2015 explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant killed 15 people, injured about 200 others and destroyed hundreds of homes.
The rule in question probably wouldn’t have prevented Thursday’s explosions, but it’s aimed at reducing the likelihood of future accidents — and ensuring that emergency responders and the public know what types of dangerous substances they might be exposed to. Firefighters and other emergency crews lack much of that crucial information about the plants and factories now awash with floodwater.
“It’s extremely frustrating, it’s disheartening, it’s unfair to the communities that face these risks,” Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said of the regulatory rollbacks the administration is pushing. “Not just in a natural disaster-type situation, but on a daily basis.”
Collapsed chemical tank roofs, machinery malfunctions and other accidents in the Houston area have sent more than 1,000 tons of dangerous chemicals into the air following days of pummeling from Harvey, according to a POLITICO analysis of incident filings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Sometimes, toxic chemicals sit in huge storage tanks that border residents’ backyards.
Refiners said they won’t know the extent of the damage until the waters recede and they can get back into the plants. But emergency crews will have to perform their duties in toxic surroundings, said James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.
“I’d put it on the scale of 9/11 health risk,” said Norton, now the head of the consulting group Play-Action Strategies. “There was a similar challenge in Katrina, as the standing water around the city kind of became a chemical sludge. The risk in Houston is greater.”
The swath of the Gulf Coast that Harvey tore apart is home to more than 300 hazardous chemical sites, according to data from the Sierra Club, including more than 230 chemical plants and over 30 refineries. And just clearing the damage will pose health problems. Texas’ famously lax site regulations and inspection rates will make normally straightforward emergency response problematic, as firefighters and others may not know whether a storage site’s equipment is up to date or even what chemicals it’s storing, said Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin.
“Emergency responders don’t have the information they need about what’s being stored at the facilities,” Craft said. “And because these facilities have flooded, and underground tank contents are coming up, all of that will magnify what we had with Katrina.”
Another worry is air pollution worsened by the volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide that refineries and chemical plants are spewing, which Craft said may endanger flood victims who suffer from asthma and other respiratory or cardiac problems. The Texas environmental commission has forecast that air quality in Houston will be “unhealthy for sensitive groups” at least through the weekend.
Thursday’s fires broke out in the early morning at the plant in Crosby, about 20 miles northeast of Houston, according to county officials. Arkema has blamed the incident on power outages and backup systems failures caused by the historic flooding triggered by the storm, which made landfall on Friday as a Category 4 hurricane.
The Arkema plant produces organic peroxides, which are used to make plastics and fiberglass but must be kept refrigerated.
Harris County evacuated everyone in a 1.5-mile radius, and several sheriff’s deputies who had breathed the smoke were sent to the hospital before being cleared, county Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a news conference. Gonzalez downplayed the incident, saying the officers were “basically standing over a barbecue pit and getting smoke in our eyes. That’s basically what occurred.”
Two raw materials stored on site and covered by EPA’s risk management rules, sulfur dioxide and a chemical called 2-methylpropene, are stored safely and are not considered at risk, Arkema executive Richard Rennard said.
EPA dispatched a sniffer plane equipped with sensors to detect chemical and radiological materials. It found “no concentrations of concern for toxic materials” as of Thursday morning, Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement.
Separately, the federal Chemical Safety Board is investigating the fire, board Chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. CSB investigators will not visit the site until it is deemed safe, but they are obtaining documents about what types of chemicals were used and stored at the plant.
Trump’s proposed budget for next year would eliminate all funding for the board, which issues safety recommendations but cannot directly enforce regulations.
Meanwhile, county emergency workers acknowledged they have no idea what other chemical plants in the area might pose an immediate risk.
“We are personally not monitoring” the status of chemicals kept in other plants in Harvey’s path, said Bob Royall, the county’s assistant chief of emergency operations. “That is industry’s responsibility.”
Public health advocates say the incident adds to the need for carrying out the Obama administration rule, which would require companies to provide more public information about the chemicals they’re storing, encourage them to look for safer alternatives and mandate third-party safety audits.
“The longer EPA delays the chemical disaster rule, the longer those types of assessments and investments will be delayed,” Nelson said. “We’re in a crisis situation here, and making policies or creating policies or buckling to industry pressure has real everyday life-or-death impacts to people.”
Nelson’s group has led a lawsuit trying to overturn Pruitt’s delay of the safety rule, which was finalized in the last days of the Obama administration but never took effect.
Arkema criticized the rule last year, telling EPA that the independent audits would “add significant new costs and burdens” but “may not necessarily provide new or additional safety benefits.” It also raised security-related concerns about sharing some information with responders and the public.
The Trump administration placed the regulation on ice shortly after taking office. EPA said in June that it would delay the rule until 2019 at the earliest while it reviews the program and potentially revises it.
In a statement, EPA noted that previous risk management rules are still in effect, and said Arkema’s Crosby plant updated its emergency plan in 2014. EPA also noted that no major updates would have taken effect until next year anyway.
“The Agency’s recent action to delay the effectiveness of the 2017 Amendments had no effect on the major safety requirements that applied to the Arkema Crosby plant at the time of the fire,” EPA said.
The Obama administration rule allowed between one and four years for facilities to meet various requirements under the update — meaning that the Arkema plant probably wouldn’t have been affected even if the regulation were in place.
“Realistically, it probably wouldn’t have prevented anything right now in this instance,” said Gordon Sommers, an Earthjustice attorney working on the lawsuit against Pruitt’s stay. “But we’re seeing more and more of these massive weather events, and this certainly illustrates the need for that rule.”
Royall said the explosions reported at the plant were more like “small container ruptures that may have a sound of a pop or something of that nature. This is not a massive explosion.”
He said the burning peroxides, which are stored in refrigerated 18-wheel truck trailers, emit gases that expand and rupture the trailers’ relief valves before eventually burning.
Arkema’s Rennard said the company expects another eight trailers to similarly go up in flames in the coming days, although he warned that the high oxygen content of the peroxides could still lead to an explosion.
“We don’t want people returning back to their homes thinking it’s over. It’s not over,” Rennard said, adding: “I think we’ve been a responsible neighbor, and I think we’re responding to this the best way we can.”
While the rule remains on ice, the lawsuit over Pruitt’s delay is ongoing.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday that public health groups had failed to meet the high bar for reinstating the rule, which would have relied in part on showing both a public interest and a threat of irreparable harm. But the judges placed the lawsuit on a fast track that could see a decision by late this year or in early 2018.
“We will certainly use this as an opportunity to continue to highlight the necessity and the critical nature of having this rule in place,” Nelson said.
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