On Sunday, a week after the flood, county police sent flames and black smoke into the skies over Crosby, Texas as they burned off the rest of the organic peroxides at Arkema Inc.’s flooded plant to keep them from popping open and burning, as three truckloads had last week. It made the TV news again. Fires above the waters.
Then the county told the neighbors who’d been evacuated from a three-mile radius they could come back. The floodwaters receded, the roads reopened. Richard Rowe, the company’s chief executive, and a team from his King of Prussia headquarters joined, Richard Rennard, president of the company’s Texas-based acrylic monomers group, at an office in a Crosby-area school to collect claims from neighbors following the weeklong evacuation, and field requests to remove their dead livestock and pets. Some 800 people had stopped or called in by Monday, the company told reporters.
Harris County urged residents to wear “protection for skin and air” — surgical masks, closed-toe shoes, gloves, long pants — the same as they should in homes flooded by Hurricane Harvey. They were told to drink bottled water, and pick up a well-testing kit at the senior citizens’ center, and to report any soot that fell out of the sky from the fire to a special Arkema hotline so the company could come out and take it away and test it to see if it contained anything worse than carbon. “This advisory will remain in effect until further testing can be completed,” the county said.
Was the ash toxic? a reporter asked. Maybe as toxic as the trailers the peroxides burned in — tires, insulation, and all — and the plastic the chemical containers were wrapped in, Rennard said.
Why no warning of the “controlled burn”? “We felt that was the best approach to ensure the safety of the people around the site,” Rennard said. Maybe they’d have crowded in to watch?
Two days earlier, he’d explained why the company had preferred not to say too much about the other, more dangerous chemicals (sulfur dioxide, isobutylene) stored on the site that didn’t burn. Telling too much might attract terrorists, he told reporters.
Four other Arkema plants in Texas were flooded, but none so badly as Crosby. (The company, descended from the old Pennsylvania Salt Co. and Philadelphia chemical pioneer Pennwalt Corp., also has facilities in Exton, West Chester, and Bristol, among other places.)
Asked about lessons learned, Rennard said, “We’re going to work with the Chemical Safety Board,” an independent U.S. government agency, “who’s going to come into Crosby and look at this specific situation and try and assess what went well and what didn’t. And frankly speaking, we welcome that. If that sort of review can help make us stronger, can help us ensure that going forward, we don’t face a similar situation like this, then we are absolutely open to that. I think it will, it could, help us and it could help the entire industry.”
Arkema’s parent company is based in France. Kevin McManus, a director at Egan-Jones Proxy Services, in Haverford, said in a report to clients Tuesday that the televised Crosby fires, whatever their environmental impact, had “a significant impact on its parent firm’s reputation.”
McManus asked if company officials’ need to burn off chemicals to prevent explosions, because nobody in the industry had expected a flood and electric-power cutoff this deep or this enduring, resulted from a “failure of imagination,” or “just plain unwillingness to spend a little extra to insure safety during emergency situations.
“Why a chemical that will probably explode at room temperature is being stored in anything less than a flood- and wind-resistant secure storage facility under 24-hour guard remains a mystery,” McManus added in his report. We’ll assume a reinforced two story structure with generators and fuel storage on the second level may have cost a few hundred thousand dollars, and that was an unacceptable expense.
He told me his firm expects to see changes at Arkema — shareholders will demand it. “Though prevention would have been better,” he added in an interview.
“We are also left to wonder if this would have ever been allowed to happen if the plant was located in Arkema’s home country of France.”