Houston Chemical Plant Fire Highlights Dangers Of Deregulation

Alexander C. Kaufman

The owner of a chemical factory spewing noxious smoke near Houston for the past two days is refusing to disclose its inventory or a map of the flood-damaged facility, citing terrorist threats ― a claim critics say makes the firm a poster child for dangers posed by deregulation.

The factory, operated by French multinational Arkema Inc., lost power on Wednesday after backup generators inundated with water from Harvey’s historic flooding failed. That left unstable chemicals unrefrigerated and combustible. Fifteen first responders had to be hospitalized after inhaling chemical smoke from nearly 2 tons of organic peroxides burning inside storage trailers at the factory in Crosby, northeast of Houston.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said a list of chemicals stored inside the facility ― known as a “Tier II” report for state and federal environmental regulators ― was not public, and could only be released through an approved public-records request to the commission. HuffPost filed a request on Friday, though state agency warned on its website that the storm may delay a response.

Arkema CEO Richard Rowe told reporters on a teleconference Friday that he was balancing “the public’s right to know and the public’s right to be secure.” The company did not respond to HuffPost’s request for further comment.

Texas began allowing companies to shroud their operations in secrecy in 2013, after a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, increased media scrutiny. That year, then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, now the governor, declared that state and local agencies could prevent the public from knowing the contents of inventories under a 2003 law meant to prevent terrorist attacks, according to the Houston Chronicle.

“Texas made it harder for people to have that information,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, told HuffPost. “We need better transparency for data, what chemicals are being stored near our homes and schools, and we should be asking the question of do we need to live with this risk, and are there alternatives that we could be using?”

There’s a lot of Arkemas in Texas. Jennifer Sass, Natural Resources Defense Council

Arkema, which operates six plants in Texas and has received more than $8.7 million in taxpayer subsidies from the state, aggressively lobbied the Trump administration to delay Environmental Protection Agency rules that would have required it to report more extensive information to first responders in case of a disaster, International Business Times reported this week. The EPA ― pursuing an ambitious reversal of industry rules under Administrator Scott Pruittpostponed the rule in June until at least February 2019.

The regulation, finalized in December, was a response to the West explosion, and took nearly five years to craft, during which time Obama administration officials sought input from every chemical industry trade group and major company in the country.

“I personally met with plant managers and industry associations,” Mathy Stanislaus, the former EPA assistant administrator for land and emergency management during Obama’s eight years in office, told HuffPost. “It’s basically built on the best practices of the industry and recommendations of their own safety professionals.”

EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham told HuffPost the rule would not have gone into effect until March 2018, so it would have had “no effect on the major safety requirements that applied to the Arkema Crosby plant at the time of the fire.”

But Stanislaus said delaying the rule was part of an effort by the Trump administration to “get rid of every Obama rule without looking into the harm to local responders, harm to communities and frankly how reasonable the rule is.”  

Former EPA chief Gina McCarthy corrected a CBS anchor this week after the journalist mistook the delay of the EPA’s so-called Risk Management Plan rule for another Obama-era flooding safeguard recently scrapped by Trump. Just two weeks before Harvey made landfall in Texas, the White House rescinded a federal rule requiring federal, state and local agencies to take steps to protect buildings, highways and other infrastructure from flooding.

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, right, discussed regulations rolled back by the Trump administration in an interview on CBS News. (CBS)

Yet a small White House agency targeted for elimination in Trump’s proposed budget could provide a critical bulwark against future disasters like the Arkema fire. On Thursday, the 47-person U.S. Chemical Safety Board opened an investigation into the factory, announcing plans for “significant document requests.” The non-regulatory agency, which reports to the Oval Office, said it had not yet sent investigators to the Crosby plant because of the danger still posed by the undisclosed chemicals inside.

“While we are initiating an investigation today, our investigators are not going to physically deploy to Crosby until the emergency response activities have been completed and the facility is deemed safe for entry,” Vanessa Allen Sutherland, Chemical Safety Board chairwoman, said in a statement.

By choosing to apply its selective scrutiny to Arkema, the board is suggesting the case could have widespread implications, Jennifer Sass, a chemicals expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told HuffPost.

“There’s a lot of Arkemas in Texas,” Sass said. “If they can come up with what went wrong and what can be improved, they can make recommendations.” 

“Those recommendations, if followed, essentially raise all boats,” she added. “They identify systemic problems and make systemic recommendations for solutions.”

Whether those recommendations are followed is another matter. In 2014, NPR criticized the Chemical Safety Board for being “undermanned and limited,” making nonbinding recommendations and lacking an enforcement mechanism. Sass said Chemical Safety Board investigations have been widely ignored in recent years.

Still, the board could help expose flaws in industry-backed safety certifications. Arkema boasted “responsible care” status, a voluntary credential awarded by the industry lobby American Chemistry Council “designed to achieve improvements in environmental, health and safety performance.”

“Some of the worst disasters we had in West Virginia were responsible care facilities,” Maya Nye, the former executive director of Mountain State-based People Concerned About Chemical Safety, told HuffPost. “It’s not adequate in protecting communities.”

Nye, now a PhD candidate studying occupational and environmental health sciences at West Virginia University, said Texas’s use of a terrorism prevention law to hide chemical stockpiles was concerning. Rather than reduce public access to information, she said companies could curb the risk of terrorist attacks by keeping smaller inventories and seeking safer alternatives.

“That would reduce the terrorist threat,” Nye said. “Hiding information and keeping people feeling in absolute terror all the time because of what might potentially happen ― who is really the terrorist?”

Ryan Grenoble contributed reporting.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.