As Harvey pummeled Houston in late August, an emergency developed just north and east of downtown that had thousands of residents worried about the threat of fire or asphyxiation, more than the flood waters. People living near the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby evacuated after flood waters choked off the refrigeration units essential for keeping highly-volatile compounds from exploding. Arkema had lost control. But in a place with a huge petrochemical infrastructure and a history of flooding – and presumably with plans to manage just such an emergency – how could this have happened?
Matt Dempsey and Jacob Carpenter reported on the Arkema plant for the Houston Chronicle. Dempsey, a data reporter for the Chronicle, says Arkema has argued that Harvey was a catastrophic event that they could have prepared for, but documents provided by the company to the EPA indicate the company would not have been ready for flood waters just half as deep as Harvey’s.
A week after Harvey flooded the area where the plant’s refrigeration equipment was located, Arkema called in the City of Houston bomb squad to perform a “controlled burn” of the remaining chemicals.
“They essentially used door charges… things you would use in a SWAT situation to ignite the rest of the chemicals and burn them down,” Dempsey says.
Dempsey says it isn’t clear why the company waited a week to burn the chemicals, or even who made the decision to involve the bomb squad.
Among the risks, Dempsey’s investigation found, was that a tank containing isobutylene was near the area of the controlled burn. Had it caught fire, a chain reaction could have caused a tank containing sulfur dioxide to explode, he says.
“That’s their worst-case scenario in the documents they filed with the EPA,” Dempsey says. “If that goes, millions of people could be affected by that sulfur dioxide.”
Written by Shelly Brisbin.