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Harvey Highlights Lax Petrochemical Regulations As More Than 40 Sites Release Pollutants

Petrochemical plant

On top of the threat of flooding, Hurricane Harvey exposed many areas in Texas to dangerous chemicals as the region's petrochemical plants and storage facilities were tested. Take the Arkema SA chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, which flooded, lost power, then had a series of fires and explosions, allowing 500,000 pounds of peroxides to burn off, forcing surrounding residents to evacuate and sending 21 emergency workers to the hospital. 

In total, from Aug. 23 to Aug. 30, 46 facilities in 13 counties reported an estimated 4.6 million pounds of airborne emissions that exceeded state limits, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund, Air Alliance Houston and Public Citizen, compiled by the New York Times. At least 14 toxic waste sites were flooded or damaged, raising fears of waterborne contamination. And nearly 100 spills of hazardous substances have been reported.

Exxon Mobil refinery, Baton Rouge

The industry has openly fought an Obama-era rule that required companies to disclose to first responders the risk of the chemicals on their sites. The rule was halted by the Environmental Protection Agency after President Donald Trump took office. Other federal agencies responsible for inspecting and investigating safety at chemical facilities are poorly funded, leaving the industry to largely police itself.

That regulatory gap is exacerbated by the lack of oversight from other agencies. The Chemical Safety Board has urged the EPA to regulate chemicals that may not be highly toxic, but may cause violent explosions or fires — like the organic peroxides that caused the explosions at Arkema's plant in Crosby. But the Chemical Safety Board's tiny staff and budget are largely ignored by federal agencies.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration hit Arkema’s Crosby site with multiple serious violations in 2016 relating to its management of highly hazardous chemicals. Arkema paid $91K to settle those violations. But OSHA has few inspectors capable of properly examining chemical facilities. 

The result is situations like those at Arkema's plant. Arkema knew about the dangers. Besides OSHA's violations last year, in 2009 the company identified floods and hurricanes as threats but did little to update contingency plans filed with the EPA.

Texas is not making things better. The state’s Homeland Security Act, passed in 2003, made government information that could potentially be used by terrorists confidential. Chemical companies have used the legislation to withhold information about the chemicals in their facilities.