By Sam Pearson
It’s been 14 years since EPA inspectors last visited an Arkema Corp. facility in Crosby, Texas, that saw chemical explosions caused by flooding from Hurricane Harvey, a company official told Bloomberg BNA.
Arkema spokesman Stan Howard, and David Gray, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6 office in Dallas, both said the plant was last inspected under the agency’s risk management program in 2003. The EPA is more likely to inspect high-risk facilities under the program “where offsite consequences impact a large number of people or they have had an accident,” Gray said in an email Sept. 6.
Arkema’s Crosby facility came under scrutiny after power failures due to an estimated 40 inches of rain at the plant during Harvey caused electricity and multiple backup generators to fail and volatile chemicals to overheat and catch fire.
The lack of inspections at the Crosby plant doesn’t surprise many. According to a Sept. 1 letter Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) sent to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency has “about 30 inspectors” who can complete between 300 and 350 inspections per year of around 12,500 facilities in the program—information the senator’s spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA came from a telephone briefing with EPA staff last week.
That means it would take at least 35 years to check all of the sites once.
Carper told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 6 the inspection gaps are “way too long.”
Jim Frederick, assistant health and safety director at the United Steelworkers union, said the long timeframe between checks at the Crosby site wasn’t surprising.
“Both EPA and OSHA are certainly not staffed to a level to have the reach to be able to inspect facilities on a very frequent basis,” Frederick said.
Several other Arkema facilities had more recent EPA inspections. The agency inspected Arkema’s Axis, Ala., plant in 2015, 2009, and 2004; a plant in Beaumont, Texas, in 2008 and 2003; the Alsip, Ill., plant in 2007; and facilities in Piffard, N.Y. and Calvert City, Ky., in 2010, according to EPA data obtained by Bloomberg BNA.
How often the inspections occur is a focus for lawmakers interested in learning more about Arkema’s problems.
The letter from Carper, the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, asked Pruitt provide inspection data for the Crosby plant and other Arkema facilities. Carper said the plant’s risk management plan seemed insufficient given the hurricane’s impact on the plant.
“The failure of both of Arkema’s emergency backup power supply measures and subsequent evacuation of on-site personnel clearly raise questions related to the sufficiency of Arkema’s plan and its implementation,” Carper wrote.
Under the EPA’s program, Arkema is required to submit a risk management plan every five years. The company filed its most recent plan for the Crosby facility in 2014, which didn’t mention the organic peroxides that exploded since those chemicals are not covered under the risk management program. But the company’s plan did identify the risk of hurricanes, power failures and power surges, and flagged the 66,260 pounds of anhydrous sulfur dioxide that, if released, could threaten more than 1 million residents within 23 miles of the plant.
Mark Farley, a partner at the law firm Katten Muchin Rosenmann LLP in Houston, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 6 he didn’t think including organic peroxides in the risk management plan would have made a difference at Arkema’s plant.
“The company and the government knew that these chemicals were highly hazardous and the employer had redundant systems in place to try to mitigate that risk,” Farley said. “What should they have done? Had a fourth backup system?”
EPA regional offices may also use consultants to check plants, and OSHA process safety management inspectors are on the lookout for many similar types of violations, Stephen Richmond, a principal at the law firm Beveridge and Diamond PC, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 6.
A typical inspection involves as many as five inspectors, who scour the plant over several days, Richmond said.
“They’re pretty intensive,” Richmond said. “The inspection, if you have five inspectors on site for as much as a week, they can cover a lot of ground.”
Other agencies that made it to the Crosby plant sometimes found violations.
OSHA inspectors that visited the site in 2016 issued 10 citations for serious violations, nine of which involved management of highly hazardous chemicals, records show. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, may also make recommendations to EPA if it finds the agency could better enforce existing regulations.
Given the magnitude of what happened, Carper wrote, reducing EPA inspections further through budget cuts “seems shortsighted at best.”
—With assistance from Dean Scott and Madi Alexander
To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Pearson in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at firstname.lastname@example.org
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