In its final report regarding a chemical plant fire in Crosby, TX, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) called for more robust industry guidance to ensure hazardous chemical facilities are better prepared for extreme weather events.
The final investigation report, issued on Thursday, details findings into a fire at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, which is about 25 miles northeast of Houston. In the days leading up to the incident on Aug. 31, an unprecedented amount of rain fell at the plant following Hurricane Harvey’s landfall, which caused equipment to flood and fail. As a result, chemicals stored at the plant decomposed and burned, releasing fumes and smoke into the air.
“Our investigation found that there is a significant lack of guidance in planning for flooding or other severe weather events,” said CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland. “Based on other government reports, we know that there is a greater likelihood of more severe weather across the country. As we prepare for this year’s hurricane season, it is critical that industry better understand the safety hazards posed by extreme weather events.”
The Arkema plant manufactures and distributes organic peroxides used to produce consumer goods such as solid surface countertops and polystyrene cups and plates. Some of the organic peroxides produced at the plant must be kept below 32 F to prevent them from decomposing and catching fire. Under normal operation, the organic peroxides are stored in low temperature warehouses and shipped in refrigerated trailers.
Extensive flooding caused by heavy rainfall caused the plant to lose power and backup power to all of the low temperature warehouses, the CSB noted. Workers at the facility moved the organic peroxides to refrigerated trailers, which were then relocated to a high elevation area of the plant.
However, three of the refrigerated trailers could not be moved and eventually flooded and failed. With refrigeration on those trailers lost, there was nothing to stop the chemicals inside from heating up and catching fire, the board noted.
All of Arkema’s employees were evacuated along with more than 200 residents living nearby. Residents could not return home for a week. In addition, 21 people sought medical attention from reported exposure to fumes and smoke.
In its final report, the CSB called for more industry guidance to help facilities better prepare for extreme weather events, like flooding. Among its recommendations, the CSB said facilities should:
- Determine susceptibility to potential extreme natural events such as flooding, earthquakes, and high winds;
- Evaluate the potential risks/adequacy of safeguards;
- Strive to apply a “sufficiently conservative” risk management approach; and
- If flooding is a risk, ensure safeguards and equipment are not susceptible to failure by a common cause and that independent layers of protection are available in the event of high water levels.
The CSB also released a safety video about the incident at Arkema.
“Considering that extreme weather events are likely to increase in number and severity, the chemical industry must be prepared for worst case scenarios at their facilities,” Sutherland said. “We cannot stop the storms, but working together, we can mitigate the damage and avoid a future catastrophic incident.”