In the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in August, the water rose so rapidly at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas site that the first combustion occurred less than 72 hours after flooding commenced. The backup generators at Arkema were elevated 2 feet off the ground, but the flooding exceeded 3 feet in the vicinity of the generators.

The waters kept rising

In short, says the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the facility was not prepared for such heavy rainfall and such a rapid flood rate. When the floodwaters knocked out power to the plant’s refrigerators, leaving the organic peroxides and volatile chemicals stores at the plant at risk of heating up, Arkema employees moved the peroxides to refrigerated trailers. But the waters kept rising, forcing the evacuation of the workers and ultimately flooding the trailers. The uncooled chemicals heated up and caught fire, burning for the next five days and sending toxic smoke into the air.

The CSB released an update on its investigation into the Arkema fires that came with a caveat for other chemical companies – many of whom may, in the future, have plants and refineries that lie within the direct path of major storms like Hurricane Harvey.

A false sense of safety

“Plan and plan again,” said CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland. “Don’t be lulled into a false sense of safety by thinking that ‘it can’t/ won’t happen here.’”

As Hurricane Harvey approached the Gulf Coast, a number of the industrial facilities in the region were making plans to shut down all or part of their operations.

“That’s when we re-issued a safety bulletin about startup activities,” said Sutherland. “Based on our investigative history, we know that quick shut downs and startups are opportunities that can expose these systems to greater risk, which if not carefully managed, can result in a major industrial incident.”

A cascading effect

She pointed out that many chemical plants and facilities in a particular area may be interconnected, so that a major disaster in one facility can have a cascading effect on fuel and other commodity productions and storage, which can be disruptive to the regional and national economy.

Sutherland said that as tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico increase in frequency or intensity, it is imperative that facilities have effective emergency response procedures in place.

“There is a valuable lesson that facilities in the Gulf and elsewhere should note: Reassess continuity of operations plans and worst case scenario assumptions.”

The CSB has concluded the photo-documentation and evidence identification portion of its investigation. It has also conducted interviews on-site and at Arkema’s corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania.