Chemical Plant Explosion Revives Fight Over Shelved Safety Regulations

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By Sam Pearson

Police and firefighters responding to an explosion at a flooded Arkema chemical plant in Texas would have known more about the facility’s risks under an updated chemical safety rule shelved by the Trump administration, critics contend.

Updates to the Environmental Protection Agency’s risk management program would have required coordination between chemical facilities and local responders prior to an emergency. Despite more than 24 hours’ notice from Arkema SA that the Crosby, Texas, plant, was likely to explode, 15 Harris County sheriff’s deputies had to be treated at a local hospital after inhaling fumes from the plant after a series of explosions that began early Aug. 31.

The goal of the updated chemical safety regulation is for local responders to “know the particular risk involved at this particular plant and take the precautions to prevent this precise type of injury,” Mathy Stanislaus, former assistant administrator for land and emergency management at the EPA during the Obama administration, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 31.

The plant was evacuated along with residents nearby after it lost its electrical supply and backup generators during Hurricane Harvey. Local officials said Aug. 31 the organic peroxides released were of low risk to the public.

Facilities storing hazardous chemicals are required to file a formal plan stating how they would handle an unplanned release of those materials, but the existing regulations don’t require the company to take any specific actions to prevent it.

Chemical Safety Board Chairperson Vanessa Sutherland said Aug. 31 the agency will investigate what happened. Sutherland said the CSB won’t learn more until investigators can access the site, which cannot happen right now because of the ongoing emergency response.

OSHA inspected the plant Aug. 9, 2016, records show, and issued 10 citations for serious violations, nine of which involved management of highly hazardous chemicals. The violations included failing to train employees every three years, not maintaining written procedures for equipment and failing to test and inspect equipment. OSHA proposed fines of $107,918, but the company paid $91,724 in penalties and abated the hazards, the agency said.

Rule Would Have Aided Responders

The Obama administration tried to update the EPA program, the Risk Management Plan, to set new requirements for information sharing, emergency preparedness for first responders, and reporting for certain chemical facilities. Despite the name, a company’s risk management plan doesn’t account for everything in detail, Sean Moulton, open government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight, told Bloomberg BNA.

Arkema’s risk management plan from 2014, the most recent available, shows it identified the risk of hurricanes, floods, power failures, and power surges, Moulton said, but that didn’t in itself require an effective prevention strategy.

Some of that could have changed under the new rule, advocates contend, but EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed the plan until February 2019. A panel of federal judges Aug. 30 declined to block the rollback, freeing chemical facilities from complying with the new standards.

An EPA spokeswoman did not respond to a request to comment from Bloomberg BNA Aug. 31.

Regulations Worked at Arkema

Though critics say the Obama-era regulations would have better prepared first responders, Michael Reer, an attorney at Harris, Finley & Bogle in Fort Worth, Texas who advises companies on risk management compliance, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 31 the existing regulations were working.

“Employees and residents were promptly and safely evacuated, and the operator appears to have begun implementing a crisis management plan,” Reer said.

The plant was also subject to the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, which screens high-risk facilities and reviews security plans to prevent sabotage or illegal entry, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s process safety management standards, which protects the plant’s workers from chemical hazards. DHS doesn’t say which plants are in its program, but Arkema officials said the agency was involved in calculating the 1.5-mile evacuation zone and in establishing a command post to monitor the plant.

Arkema Defends Efforts

While the incident added to headaches for Houston-area first responders, the broader regulatory implications of the plant’s failure are unclear.

At a news conference Aug. 31, Richard Rennard, Arkema’s president of acrylic monomers, told reporters the company provided multiple layers of generators, all of which failed.

“I’m not sure what more we could have done to provide additional layers of security on site,” Rennard said.

Stanislaus said the amended risk management program would have required companies like Arkema to conduct root cause analyses when near-miss events occur.

“Frankly, the lack of power is not an excuse,” Stanislaus said, because the company should have had a way to maintain backup power during the storm. He said the flood should be “a wake up call for the industry to work with local responders.”

Safety Board Involvement?

Some questions could be answered during the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s investigation. The board, a nonregulatory agency charged with investigating high-risk chemical incidents, can request company documents, inspect the plant and subpoena the company if necessary.

The agency may eventually issue a report identifying the root cause of the explosions and how other facilities can prevent losing control of chemical stockpiles during large floods and power losses.

Mark Farley, a partner at the law firm Katten Munchin Rosenman LLP in Houston, told Bloomberg BNA the CSB may also use the incident to reexamine how reactive chemicals should be managed. The agency issued a study of the issue in 2002.

On a list of desired safety changes, the CSB calls for including reactive chemicals under the EPA’s risk management plan and OSHA’s process safety management regulations.

The CSB may also want to examine to what extent Arkema communicated with local responders prior to the storm, Farley said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Pearson in Washington at spearson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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