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CSB says US chemical plants must be better prepared for natural disasters

16 November 2017

The US Chemical Safety Board, concerned about the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and natural disasters, is warning the chemical industry to rethink its emergency plans in light of the Arkema fires in Crosby, Texas, that followed Hurricane Harvey in late August.

CSB Director Vanessa A. Sutherland
CSB Director Vanessa A. Sutherland

Over several days, Harvey flooded the site of the Arkema plant with more than six feet of water, causing the site to lose its electrical supply and the ability to keep volatile organic peroxides cool. As their temperature increased, the peroxides exploded, leading to large fires and the evacuation of homes and businesses up to 1.5 miles from the plant.

Arkema had previously claimed, in documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle from the US Environmental Protection Agency, that the level of flooding from Harvey could not have been predicted. The Crosby location had not received more than 20 inches of flooding in its history, according to the company.

At a news conference on November 15, CSB Director Vanessa Allen Sutherland warned companies not to use the past to predict the impact of future events.

“No one has a crystal ball, but we don’t want people to be lulled into a false sense that the plan they may have done two or three years ago is still going to be adequate,” Sutherland said.

She cautioned that storms were likely to increase in frequency and intensity, and companies needed to be prepared. She said the safety board’s review of the Arkema fires would have significant implications for the chemical industry.

"Our message is you do have to reassess your worst-case scenario. Plan and plan again," Sutherland said. "Don't be lulled into a false sense of security that it can't or won't happen here."

The CSB is carrying out an investigation into the Arkema incident which should be ready for the 2018 hurricane season, and the CSB Director said she hoped it would have broad national impact.

How companies reassess their worst-case scenarios as the number and intensity of storms such as Harvey increases is the “crux of this investigation,” said Mark Wingard, the CSB’s lead investigator on the Arkema case.

“A number of facilities had flooding along the Gulf Coast,” Wingard said. “Was the guidance we had at the time sufficient?”

There are no regulations requiring companies in a flood plain to elevate generators or provide backup power. Companies need to go beyond the rules and guidelines when considering how to prepare for floods, Wingard said, even though there are no federal rules that say they must.

The CSB is still in the early stages of its investigation, which will include details such as the nature of the fumes that incapacitated first responders and Crosby residents in the aftermath of the chemical fires.

The agency has produced an initial assessment of the incident in video format, accessible via the link below.


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