Burning Houston Chemical Plant Highlights Trump-Pruitt Refusal To Improve Chemical Safety

08/31/2017 12:28 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2017

This morning a flooded chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, 20 miles from Houston, continues to burn, after explosions there overnight sent plumes of smoke into the air. The plant, which has lost electric power, is owned by France’s Arkema Group, one of the world’s biggest chemical companies. An Arkema spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the fire “will be explosive and intense in nature.” Richard Rennard, an Arkema executive, told reporters near the site this morning that smoke from the fire could cause irritation to skin, lungs, and eyes and that anyone exposed should “call their doctor or seek medical advice.” Brock Long, the Federal Emergency Management Agency head, said that the “the plume is incredibly dangerous.” Residents around the area already had been evacuated because of the potential plant danger.

The Harris County Sheriff’s office tweeted that one if its deputies was “taken to hospital after inhaling fumes from Archem plant in Crosby.” The sheriff later said that deputy and 14 other first responders were treated and released.

The plant manufactures organic peroxides ― compounds used to make countertops, paints, construction materials, and other products.

There is powerful scientific evidence that climate change is making rainstorms more powerful and destructive. So many are pointing out that actions by President Trump and APA administrator Scott Pruitt to cancel U.S. initiatives to combat climate change ― withdrawing from the Paris accord and dumping a range of Obama-era environmental regulations ― look particularly foolish in the wake of the terrible destruction caused by Harvey.

But the Arkema fires highlights one more area where Trump-Pruitt environmental decisions endanger the American people ― and could increase the suffering and destruction in the wake of natural disasters like Harvey. Because in June, Pruitt’s EPA announced it was delaying for 20 months an Obama rule aimed at improving safety at U.S. chemical plants, while it revisits the wisdom of the rule.

In April I testified at an EPA hearing on the delay of the chemical safety rule, presenting a joint statement from me and from Major General Randy Manner, US Army (Ret), a former acting director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré, US Army (Ret), the former commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, who is now in Houston talking about the relief effort.

General Honore, General Manner, and I told the EPA that for decades, our country has failed to squarely address the dangers of hazardous chemical facilities ― from oil refineries to water treatment plants. We noted that a chemical explosion or release could be triggered by an accident, a deliberate attack, or a natural disaster ― and that such an incident could kill thousands of people. Millions of our citizens live and work near these dangerous facilities.

The Obama EPA rule, issued on January 13, was the product of extensive deliberation ― three years of discussions with chemical companies, plant workers, affected communities, first responders and others. The rule strengthens the federal Risk Management Program (RMP), which addresses some 12,500 facilities that use or store large quantities of highly toxic or highly flammable chemicals.

The AP reports this morning that the EPA had required the Arkema plant now burning to develop and submit a plan under the RMP program, “because it has large amounts of sulfur dioxide, a toxic chemical, and methylpropene, a flammable gas.” RMP plans must explain the risks of a potential release, including worst-case scenarios, and outline how the company would respond. The AP report says, “In its most recently available submission from 2014, Arkema said potentially 1.1 million residents could be impacted over a distance of 23 miles (37 kilometers) in a worse case, according to information compiled by a nonprofit group and posted on a website hosted by the Houston Chronicle. But, Arkema added, it was using ‘multiple layers of preventative and mitigation measures’ at the plant, including steps to reduce the amount of substances released, and that made the worst case ‘very unlikely.’” (Note: Here is that website.)

The AP further reported, “Daryl Roberts, the company’s vice president of manufacturing, technology and regulatory services in the Americas, did not dispute that worst-case scenario but said that assumed all the controls in place failed and strong winds blew directly toward Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city. ‘We have not modeled this exact scenario but we are very comfortable with this 1.5-mile radius,’ Roberts told the AP. He added that it mostly resembled less serious scenarios that would affect a half-mile radius and a few dozen people.”

Even that version of the risks doesn’t sound comforting, on top of all the dangers and hardships the people of the Gulf region face right now.

The Arkema plant is no outlier. Across our country, hazardous chemical facilities are, in effect, as Senator Barack Obama said in 2006, “stationary weapons of mass destruction” ― capable, if triggered, of causing the same kinds of harm as chemical weapons.

We know the risk because there have been major incidents, like the 2013 West, Texas, ammonium nitrate explosion. That tragedy, which some federal investigators concluded was sabotage, killed 15 Americans and injured 160 more. It highlighted the failure by many in the chemical industry to minimize and safely secure toxic materials, and our government’s failure to create comprehensive and fair rules to protect against such incidents.

West, Texas, was not the only warning. From 2004 to 2013 there were some 1,500 chemical releases or explosions, causing 17,000 injuries and 58 deaths. There have been hundreds more incidents since then, with more casualties.

We know the dangers, also, from the 1984 pesticide plant disaster at Bhopal, India, which caused 20,000 deaths. The Bhopal plant was owned by a U.S. company, Union Carbide. If that plant had been located in the U.S. and 20,000 people had died here, we would have fixed this problem long ago.

Terrorists could trigger a chemical plant attack in our country, with consequences like Bhopal, or worse. 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, before he flew a jet into the World Trade Center, reportedly had been scouting U.S. chemical plant sites.

In 2003, the government’s National Infrastructure Protection Center warned that U.S. chemical plants could be terrorist targets. Security experts have warned of the relative ease with which determined attackers could thwart plant security. The potential for cyber attacks makes the challenge even more serious.

The EPA has identified 466 chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a poison gas disaster. In 2004, the Homeland Security Council projected that a major attack would kill 17,500 people and injure tens of thousands.

This is an urgent national security or homeland security issue. Yet the Trump Administration has simply yielded to the demands of Koch Industries and others in the chemical industry lobby, blocking an urgent, common sense rule to placate wealthy patrons, just as Pruitt has dumped rules to curb global warming and toxic pollution at the behest of the fossil fuel industry and other polluters.

Chemical industry lobbying already kept important protections out of the Obama rule. In particular, community, labor, and environmental groups had strongly urged that plants be required to move to safer technologies where feasible, as some responsible companies, such as Clorox, already have done voluntarily.

But the Obama rule did provide some common sense safety reforms.  One can’t say now, without more information, that these reforms, once implemented, would have prevented today’s Arkema explosion. But the rule blocked by Pruitt would require plants like Arkema’s to engage in more coordination with local first responders to plan for incidents and make it easier for community members to learn about plant dangers. The rule also would require such plants to evaluate whether they need greater safety improvements and emergency preparedness, such as storing fewer chemicals, improving storage safety, and strengthening backup power so electricity would be maintained in a storm. And the rule would have required, for three industries with the most serious accident records ― refineries, paper mills, and chemical manufacturers ― to analyze whether it was feasible to move to safer technologies and materials.

Today’s chemical plant explosion highlights the dangers of our chemical plants in the wake of a natural disaster and the urgent need to do more to make our plants safer. Instead, Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt have heightened those dangers.

This article also appears on HuffPost.

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