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News Extra: Houston plant explosion highlights efforts in Texas to block access to information on chemicals

13 September 2017

One of the most damaging aspects of the major flooding in and around Houston after Hurricane Harvey has been its effect on the many chemical and oil facilities in across the city. ExxonMobil said there had been leaks from its two refineries in the area and there have been reports of ‘unbearable’ chemical smells across the city. 

But the most visible effect of the flooding on local high hazard industry has been the explosions and fires at the Arkema plant in Crosby, where the floods caused the electrical supply to fail taking out the refrigeration systems vital for the safe storage of organic peroxides on the site.

On August 31 two trailers containing the chemicals exploded at the Arkema plant, causing a fire and thick column of black smoke that led to the evacuation of everyone within 1.5 miles of the plant. On September 3, Arkema carried out a controlled burn of the six other trailers containing organic peroxides to enable emergency staff to access the site and establish the extent of the damage.

Earlier, 15 police officers were taken to hospital after being exposed to toxic vapours from the site and were treated for eye irritation.

The Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement: "EPA has emergency response personnel on the scene and the agency is currently reviewing data received from an aircraft that surveyed the scene early this morning. "This information indicates that there are no concentrations of concern for toxic materials reported at this time."

But at a news conference in Washington, DC, Brock Long, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he considered plumes from the explosion "incredibly dangerous".

Confusion as to the toxicity of chemicals released across Crosby and Houston is widespread as the authorities and plant owners are not always giving concerned citizens details about the chemicals stored in the many flooded and damaged high hazard plants in and around Houston.

After the first of the explosions at the Arkema plant, for example, the company refused to voluntarily release two documents critical for assessing the potential fallout. In the past, information contained in such filings has proved critical to helping journalists and outside experts assess public health risks at refineries and chemical plants, or discover what went wrong in the wake of a disaster.

The two documents — a federally mandated risk management plan and a detailed account of the chemicals on site, called a Tier-II inventory — are technically considered public records. But current laws and policies make them difficult to access.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott was vocal in the campaign to restrict this information, claiming this would prevent terrorists from targeting volatile plants. He was a major figure in the Republican-led campaign to oppose then-President Obama’s push to make companies publish inventories of dangerous substances held on their sites after the fertiliser plant explosion at West in Texas in 2015, which killed 15.

For decades, the state made these reports available upon request to homeowners, the media or anyone else who wanted to know where dangerous chemicals were stored. But in 2014, Abbott ruled that state agencies could withhold such information.

Texas leaders have pushed for more secrecy on another front. Following the West explosion, the EPA began drafting a rule that would have, among other provisions, eased public access to chemical plants’ risk management plans for worst-case scenarios. The EPA identified 466 chemical facilities across the country that each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a poison gas disaster.

But Scott Pruitt, the EPA chief under President Donald Trump, scrapped the rule earlier this year, at the request of the state of Texas and manufacturing companies including Arkema.
Texas and 10 other states complained that the rule would have required “unprecedented public disclosure of facility information that will threaten local communities and homeland security.”

Rich Rowe, Arkema’s CEO, cited the need “to balance the public’s right to know with the public’s right to be secure” in his decision to keep some information on the Crosby plant secret. The company has released a list of the chemicals used at the site, but not their quantities or on-site locations  — crucial data for assessing likely effects on the plant’s neighbourhood.

More than 12 hours after the initial explosions, the EPA finally provided reporters who asked with a partial version of Arkema’s Crosby risk management plan.

Hurricane Harvey's waters have also flooded at least 13 of the 41 Superfund toxic waste sites in the region, the Environmental Protection Agency said on September 2 based on aerial imagery, raising alarm about other possible pollution and contamination.

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