Burning Texas Plant Was Just Fined for Mishandling ‘Explosive Chemicals’

The disaster unfolding outside of Houston was known to OSHA and EPA officials. And Texas’ governor played a role in keeping the chemicals there secret.

HOUSTON — The Crosby, Texas chemical plant burning in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey was cited with eight “serious” safety violations last year for failure to prevent the “catastrophic releases of toxic, reactive, flammable, or explosive chemicals.”

Arkema Incorporated, the plant’s parent company, claimed it did everything it could to prevent the fires, but safety inspectors this year fined Arkema this past spring. And people living within a 1.5-mile mandatory evacuation zone didn’t know what chemicals were stored at the plant, thanks to a 2014 decision by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, which classified once-public reports on hazardous chemicals. Abbott is now governor.

Arkema and its Crosby facility have racked up over a dozen violations and “informal enforcement actions” over safety and environmental problems over the past five years, according to records from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The latest OSHA case closed in May 2017. Arkema was initially fined more than $100,000, but paid $91,724 after complying with OSHA's demands, the agency told The Daily Beast. OSHA wouldn't speculate if the violations are related to the current fires and explosions.

Eight of the ten violations fall under the category of “process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals,” meaning Arkema was breaking rules meant to prevent the “catastrophic releases of toxic, reactive, flammable, or explosive chemicals,” according to the OSHA appendix of regulations.

Those flammable chemicals, which the company has described as “peroxides,” need to remain refrigerated to prevent from degrading. When floodwaters knocked out the plant’s primary and backup cooling systems, the company warned that the plant would blow. Arkema CEO Rich Rowe told reporters Wednesday there was “no way to prevent” the explosion.

At least some experts have disagreed. Sam Mannan, a chemical engineer and director of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Center at Texas A&M University, told the Houston Chronicle he would be surprised if Arkema didn’t have a plan for precisely this situation. Still, Mannan told Bloomberg, “I don’t know if anybody is ready for this level of flooding."

Neil Carman, Clean Air Director for the Texas branch of the Sierra Club, told The Daily Beast that after “dealing with these issues with 40 years,” he had “never seen anything like this.”

“This is unprecedented,” Carman added. He complained that Arkema hadn’t released its Risk Management Plan, which would show, he said, “the radius around the plant in which people could die.”

“This is outrageous and it should not be covered up,” he said. “The industry doesn’t want the public to know the dangerous nature of the chemicals they’re storing and managing.”Arkema’s main phone line was busy Thursday, and the company could not be reached for comment.

The Crosby plant wasn’t the only one cited by regulators: its plant in Houston was also hit by violations from OSHA. In a 2012 letter, OSHA said Arkema’s storage plants lacked “design calculations for the worst case scenario.”

A spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said he didn’t want to “speculate” if Arkema could have prevented the fires. Following the fire,  TCEQ warned of irritation, headaches and “decreased lung function” as a result of the fire, advising people to stay indoors with windows, doors and air-conditioning vents closed.

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Arkema claims to have safety procedures that reduce neighbors’ health risks. The company is a signatory to the American Chemical Council’s Responsible Care program, a voluntary program that Arkema touts on its website. The program promotes health and safety measures for the plants and their neighbors. but the opt-in, self-reporting nature of the program has led critics to question its effectiveness.

A 2015 report by the Center for Effective Government focused on Arkema and six other Responsible Care-compliant chemical plants, and found that those plants sometimes led the nation in safety violations, according to a compilation of government inspection records from 2012 to 2014. During that time period, Arkema racked up 78 violations at its various U.S. plants, the report found.

In a response to the report, the ACC pointed out that Responsible Care-compliant companies undergo independent audits once every three years.

On its website, Arkema highlights its Responsible Care pledges, including a commitment to “community awareness and emergency response”. But when it came to informing community members of the chemicals stored in the Crosby plant, Arkema was less transparent.

In a Wednesday conference call with reporters, Arkema’s CEO for North American operations Richard Rowe was mum on the plant’s contents, despite their imminent explosion.

“Are you going to provide an updated, the most current Tier Two chemical inventory for the facility to the media,” Houston Chronicle reporter Matt Dempsey asked Rowe on the call, referring to a detailed report on the plant’s chemical holdings.

“I don’t know that we see the need to do that,” Rowe replied after a pause. “They’re all involved with the peroxides we’re discussing.”

The reports were previously public record, until Abbott as attorney general yanked public access to the reports in 2014, making them available only to officials and emergency responders. Abbott justified classifying the information “because it reveals the location, quantity and identity of hazardous chemicals … likely to assist in the construction of an explosive weapon,” WFAA reported.

Even before the reports were made private, neighbors of chemical plants sometimes struggled to learn what agencies oversaw the facilities, Texans reported after a disastrous explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed 15 people in 2013.

The state’s loose reporting regulations have led to a patchwork approach to public safety, with state or federal authorities sometimes unaware of the chemicals stored in Texas plants. The Department of Homeland Security, which was supposed to track dangerous chemicals shrugged off responsibility for the state of Texas, delegating inspections to local authorities after the West explosion, the New York Times reported at the time.

However, EPA records as recent as 2016 reveal that Arkema stores a number of suspected or known carcinogens at its Crosby facility, including cumene and benzoyl chloride.

The EPA says there are 1,278 households within a five-mile radius of the plant, including 909 people below the poverty line. Almost 20 percent of residents in the area lack a high school education.

Editor's Note, 9/1/17: This story was updated with OSHA information on the penalty Arkema paid.