Honesty about potential high hazard plant risk may be wiser than dissimulation
05 October 2017
The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey highlights some of the problems facing high hazard industry regulation in Texas and the USA. Arkema, which owns the plant on the outskirts of Houston where a number of explosions and fires broke out after flooding caused by the hurricane, is now at the centre of a legal maelstrom centred on the company's refusal to give details of the hazardous chemicals it held on site.
To complicate matters, Arkema was one of a number of companies to lobby 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, the International Business Times has reported.
The state began allowing companies to shroud their operations in secrecy in 2013, after the deadly fertiliser plant explosion in West, Texas, increased media scrutiny. That year, Texas 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.
The Trump administration and Republican leaders in Texas have undertaken a number of actions to block potentially life-saving information being made available about toxic chemical releases, explosion risk and other dangers.
This could rebound on those companies who chose secrecy over full disclosure, with Arkema in the immediate line of fire. On September 7, a week after the first blast rocked the Texas town, Houston lawyers launched a legal case in a Harris County court, accusing Arkema of gross negligence.
Despite past flooding events and advance notice of the impending destruction of Hurricane Harvey, Arkema "ignored the foreseeable consequences of failing to prepare," the suit claims, leaving trailers of volatile chemicals susceptible to explosion after flooding knocked out the electricity and ability to cool the heat-sensitive compounds.
The first of nine trailers of organic peroxides exploded early on the morning of August 31, landing a number of first responders in the hospital following exposure to fumes from the chemicals, which ignited and left a 40-foot plume of black smoke.
"Although the explosions had occurred, no one from Arkema alerted the first responders who were manning the perimeter of the arbitrary mandatory evacuation area," the lawyers said in a press release. "Immediately upon being exposed to the fumes from the explosions, and one by one, the police officers and first responders began to fall ill in the middle of the road."
Emergency medical personnel arrived on scene, and were overcome by fumes before even exiting their vehicles, the lawyers allege. "The scene was nothing less than chaos," the lawsuit claims. "Police officers were doubled over vomiting, unable to breathe."
The initial deposition claims fifteen Harris County deputies and eight EMS personnel, including Crosby's EMS chief, were hospitalised due to exposure to the fumes.
The legal claim specifically targets Arkema officials Richard Rowe and Richard Rennard for holding press conferences at which they "repeatedly denied that the chemicals were toxic or harmful in any manner," the lawyers write. "Plaintiffs relied upon these representations and suffered serious bodily injury as a result."
Local residents, many of whom had to evacuate the vicinity of the plant, have since joined the action, the first of several to target Arkema for alleged negligence.
District Attorney Kim Ogg said on September 29: "Companies should be on notice that we care when they pollute our air, our water, our environment. We are looking into exactly what happened at the plant. We are gathering facts and we will apply the law. Arkema is under criminal investigation."
This is on top of an earlier lawsuit against Arkema filed by the Harris County Pollution Control Services Department, alleging serious violations of the Clean Air Act.
It is clear that the company’s decision to ignore the multiple requests for detailed breakdowns of the chemicals being held at its sites could have expensive ramifications for Arkema, quite apart from any reputational damage. Other high hazard sector companies in a similar situation may want to take note.