Chemical Safety Board Will Send Investigators to Houston to Probe Explosions

Officers at a roadblock near the Arkema chemical plant outside Houston on Aug. 31,  after the plant was rocked by multiple explosions. Officers at a roadblock near the Arkema chemical plant outside Houston on Aug. 31, after the plant was rocked by multiple explosions. Gregory Bull/AP

The tiny independent Chemical Safety Board—one of the 19 agencies President Trump has sought to abolish—on Thursday began probing a flood-related chemical fire and explosion just outside Houston.

At the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, just after midnight early Thursday, a pressurized vat holding decomposing liquid organic peroxide caught fire and then exploded, according to news reports. Eleven employees and residents of the sparsely populated area within in a mile-and-a-half radius had been evacuated after the area lost power on Monday, and the facility’s owners warned that with no power to refrigerate the stored chemicals, eight other containers were vulnerable to fire and noxious smoke.

In Washington on Thursday, CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland announced at a press conference that her investigators—including two based in Houston—had begun asking the company for background on its safety procedures. “Our investigators aren’t going to physically deploy until the emergency response officials have declared the area safe,” she said. Arkema is being asked for documentation on the chemicals it uses at the plant and their implications for emergency preparedness efforts.

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Just as the board was preparing its launch, Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., sent Sutherland a letter urging such a probe to come up with recommendations for preventing such explosions in the future. “The proximate cause of the explosion was almost certainly the catastrophic flooding caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey,” they wrote. “However, we believe that measures to better plan for extreme weather, especially given the likelihood that such events will increase in frequency and severity due to climate change, could lead to better resiliency and ability to prevent, reduce or mitigate their consequences.”

Last Sunday, as the hurricane drama unfolded, the chemical board released an alert to industry cautioning against restarting their plants too hastily. “Restarting a complex petrochemical process requires a higher level of attention and care than normal processing, because numerous activities are occurring simultaneously and many automatic systems are run under manual control,” the board wrote. “Because a significant number of facilities were shut down during Hurricane Harvey, there will be a significant number of facilities restarting, which will increase the risk to safety.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is also working on the Arkema situation, deploying an aircraft to "secure chemical information from the smoke cloud,” it said in a Thursday release, and dispatching an on-scene coordinator to ensure all federal resources are available to first responders.

CSB has studied Texas’s relatively hands-off approach to industrial regulations in recent years. The nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists on Thursday advocated using the risky situation at Arkema to consider more aggressive regulation.

When the Trump White House released its first budget in March, Sutherland released a statement saying the board “is disappointed to see the president’s budget proposal to eliminate the agency. The CSB is an independent agency whose sole mission is to investigate accidents in the chemical industry and to make recommendations to prevent future accidents and improve safety. For over 20 years, the CSB has conducted hundreds of investigations of high consequence chemical incidents, such as the Deepwater Horizon and West Fertilizer disasters. Our investigations and recommendations have had an enormous effect on improving public safety.”

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