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By Sam Pearson
A federal agency that could unravel why Arkema’s Texas chemical plant exploded after Hurricane Harvey is a tiny office with 40 employees that the Trump administration has proposed to kill.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board could be the only federal agency able to answer why the Crosby, Texas, chemical plant storing organic peroxides exploded several times following extensive flooding from the hurricane. And while the board has already convinced lawmakers to try to keep the agency open for fiscal 2018, the new investigation could showcase its unique role to both the public and a White House that has given no indication it will support the board’s work in coming years.
The CSB has a statutory mandate to investigate the root cause of chemical incidents, a broader task than that of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, both of which regulate the plant. CSB investigators arrived at the plant Sept. 5.
“The implications of Harvey on the chemical industry in the Gulf kind of show the importance of the Chemical Safety Board and the role that it can play in preventing these kind of incidents, or worse, that happened at Arkema,” Jordan Barab, former OSHA deputy director, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 6. “We’re going to be seeing a lot more of these extreme weather events, particularly in the Gulf region,” and chemical companies will have to figure out how to adapt.
Former CSB Member Gerald Poje told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 6 the Arkema incident raised significant questions about whether Texas or the company should have done more to ensure safety.
Poje said the state should figure out what it could have done to ensure plants like Arkema did not make the impacts of the storm worse “with a monumental human-caused disaster.”
OSHA and the EPA are unlikely to investigate because there is no evidence Arkema was out of compliance with their regulations during the hurricane, Mark Farley, a partner at the law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in Houston, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 6.
OSHA said in a statement it was “premature to speculate” if previous process safety management violations at the plant contributed to the explosions. The plant also is not known to have violated any EPA chemical security regulations, but the agency could issue fines if violations are found.
CSB has a broader mandate, Farley said, to determine if government and industry need to “do something different, especially when such highly hazardous chemicals are involved.”
Arkema spokesman Stan Howard said in an email to Bloomberg BNA Sept. 6 the company plans to cooperate with CSB.
As part of the investigation, CSB staff will attempt to determine the root cause of the chemical explosions, which could stem from both lax company procedures and gaps in regulation that don’t account for the hazards present at the plant and similar sites. CSB investigators typically seek evidence like samples of failed equipment, company records, and other data to reconstruct what occurred.
While Arkema may conduct its own internal review to determine what happened, only CSB’s report is required to be made public.
This gives the CSB “a vital role in safety and health, both for workers and the public,” Jim Frederick, assistant health and safety director at the United Steelworkers union, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 6.
In other high-profile cases in which CSB has been involved, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the board’s probe of the blowout led to recommendations for offshore drilling operators and federal regulators to tighten a variety of standards to “shift from correcting individual ‘errors’ identified post-incident to a systematic approach for managing human factors.”
The board could recommend regulatory fixes, including things that are “often uncomfortable to politically powerful people” and are unlikely to be examined by OSHA and EPA under the Trump administration, James Goodwin, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, told Bloomberg BNA.
The investigation’s findings “will be relevant well beyond the facility, responders, planners, and community directly impacted by the incident,” Timothy Gablehouse, government affairs director at the National Association of SARA Title III Program Officials, said in an email to Bloomberg BNA.
While the CSB may examine how existing regulations affected the Crosby plant, Farley said other agencies are not likely to change them at this time because it does not align with administration policy.
“Certainly this administration is not inclined to undertake additional regulatory efforts, especially where it’s not clear that they are necessary,” Farley said.
Chemical Safety Board Chairperson Vanessa Sutherland said last week investigators had “a number of document requests” for the company. The CSB can obtain non-public information from Arkema by administrative subpoena if necessary, and seek legal action against the corporation if it refuses to comply.
Arkema Inc. defused the situation without injuries to its employees or the public, but only through a multi-day evacuation that strained emergency responders and rattled residents of Crosby, who were kept 1.5 miles from the plant over safety fears. The company said in a Sept. 3 statement it “took proactive action” to conduct a controlled burn of six remaining containers of the chemicals, and local officials lifted an evacuation zone early Sept. 4.
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