Arkema responds: Chemical regulation is government's call

Harvey Chemical Plant
Thick black smoke and flames rise from Arkema Americas’ chemical complex in Crosby, Texas.

We’ve been updating readers, most recently Sunday, about French-owned, King of Prussia-based Arkema Americas’ Crosby, Texas, facility, where Hurricane Harvey’s floods and power outages fed a string of fires that temporarily idled the plant’s 55 workers and produced smoke-filled videos that were for several days one of the sad public faces of flooded Houston. Already filed is at least one lawsuit by an EMS chief, sheriff’s deputies and a firefighter that accuses the company of “negligence” after they became sick from smoke inhalation and possible exposure to other toxics stored at the site, which Arkema says it worked to isolate from the fires.

The company replied late Friday to written questions I sent the previous Tuesday. Some highlights:

Question: How many people does Arkema employ in the Philadelphia area?  

Answer: We have approximately 950 employees at all our sites in Greater Philadelphia. [This includes] King of Prussia, 660 [Arkema Americas headquarters and R&D Center]; Bristol, 137; West Chester, 74; Exton,70. [A plastics plant Arkema operates along with Solvay in West Deptford was fined $115,000 last year for OSHA violations, according to a report.]

Q: When do you expect to resume full operation at Crosby?

A: We don’t have a timeline for when the site will reopen. Our current focus is on cooperating with the government investigations and supporting employees and neighbors impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

Q: What is the estimated cost of the damage (to Arkema, neighbors, government agencies)?

A: This question will also take time. We are working within the community to help our neighbors meet immediate needs, and we have instituted a claims processing center to address [and] adjust claims for reimbursement for damages.

Q: Did county officials burn off the organic peroxides at Crosby, or was it Arkema personnel?

A: This process was one that we worked on in concert with Unified Incident Command, which included a wide range of emergency response agencies. We appreciate their support and involvement.  For further information, we suggest you contact the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office.

Q: Were other chemicals stored at the Crosby plant affected by the fire? Were they affected by the flood? 

A: To our knowledge, the materials burned on site were finished organic-peroxide products, their packaging, the pallets, and the refrigerated trailers. We are in the process of cleaning the site and cooperating with government investigators, and we will know more when that process is complete.

Q: Arkema has apologized for the inconvenience to neighbors and county personnel, (but also) pointed out that the extent and duration of the flooding was unexpected. Are you altering your disaster planning to include such disasters in future? 

A: The National Weather Service reported that Harvey dropped about 51 inches of rain, the greatest amount of rain ever recorded in the continental United States. [Arkema cited National Weather Service, Huffington Post and Atlantic magazine articles to underline] the unprecedented nature of this hurricane.

So there is a vast difference between the flooding from Harvey, and anything seen at that plant in the past.  Hurricane Harvey has literally set a new high water level for our plant, and this will certainly figure into our thinking going forward.

Q: The Crosby facility was cited by OSHA in February for 10 “serious” violations of OSHA rules, including eight regarding the handling of hazardous materials. What is the status of those OSHA actions there, has Arkema paid or is Arkema continuing to dispute OSHA claims? Are there other regulatory-action decisions pending for the facility?

A: Our Crosby site had an OSHA PSM [Process Safety Management] NEP [National Emphasis Program] inspection during the second half of 2016. We cooperated fully with OSHA inspectors throughout their review of our facility, and we made a multi-million dollar investment to address concerns raised by OSHA during the inspection.  This OSHA audit is closed and all issues have been resolved.

Q: Arkema and other chemical companies and their industry associations have lobbied for past changes to disclosure and to regulation for chemical facilities in Texas and in the U.S. Does Arkema favor or oppose disclosure of the names, quantities and locations of toxic chemicals at its facilities? How does Arkema characterize U.S. and Texas state chemical-facility regulation: Are there appropriate government rules and practices that help Arkema and other companies do their jobs better, is there generally too much, or unhelpful, or too little regulation? Should companies be left more to manage their businesses and determine what safety steps and disclosure is appropriate?

A: We comply with all existing regulations, including those that relate to public disclosure, and we have supported regulations that make chemical facilities safer. Like others in industries that work with dangerous materials, Arkema supports additional requirements for public disclosures as long as proper information safeguards are in place. Ultimately, while there may be public debate, the choice between the public’s right-to-know vs. the public’s demand for security is made by government officials. We are committed to providing federal, state and local responders with the information they need to make decisions based on facts as they exist in real time, as exemplified by the information sharing, coordination and cooperation with the Unified Incident Command at Crosby, which resulted in the 1.5-mile evacuation zone being established.