Lawsuits Question Arkema Emergency Preparedness Plan

Last week officials in Harris County, Texas were granted permission to file a lawsuit against international chemical company, Arkema, Inc., in attempt to recover the costs of responding to the crisis at the company’s plant in Crosby during Hurricane Harvey in August into September. The County has asked a court to review the plant’s environmental practices and disaster preparedness plan and to determine how, if at all, it was updated to reflect the projections of 50-plus inches of rain in the days leading up to Harvey’s landfall.

The New York Times reported that in its risk management plan to the federal government, Arkema indicated that floods and hurricanes, as well as power failure and loss of cooling, were threats to its Crosby chemical plant. In its filing with the government, however, Arkema did not provide contingency plans to address those concerns, the Times said.

As previously reported, several feet of floodwaters caused a power outage which subsequently prevented Arkema plant staff from ensuring that nearly 500,000 tons of organic peroxides were kept cooled and stable. The chemicals eventually overheated and caused a series of explosions which started in late August into the first week of September. This led to a mandatory 1.5-mile evacuation of the area, affecting about 300 homes and many nearby businesses.

Local media reported that Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan is expected to file the lawsuit this week. “The company’s lack of preparedness caused a crisis on top of this horrific storm,” Ryan said in a statement. “Dozens of first responders were required by this emergency caused by Arkema when their services were desperately needed elsewhere.”

According to the County’s statement:

Investigations conducted by the Harris County Pollution Control Services and the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office uncovered serious violations of the Texas Clean Air Act. Ryan will seek to recover the County’s costs for responding to the week-long incident.

This is the second suit to arise from the Arkema plant’s explosions. On Sept. 7, seven first responders filed a negligence lawsuit against Arkema, alleging they were not warned of the smoke and fumes and their effects prior to arriving. The responders claim they became ill shortly after they began working on the scene following the Aug. 31 explosion; many left vomiting, gasping for air and unable to breathe during and after rescue efforts.

The Texas Tribune reported that the lawsuit was updated in late September, swelling to include six additional first responders and a number of area homeowners. They claim to have suffered “upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, itchy, burning eyes, tight, burning throats and the like—illnesses and injuries that did not exist prior to the explosions and fires at the Arkema facility and illnesses resulting from and exacerbated by the explosions and fire at the Arkema facility.” Plaintiffs are seeking more than $1 million in damages, according to the suit.

The third lawsuit was filed Oct. 2 by nearby residents who claim their properties were contaminated with toxins. The federal suit details how residents are now suffering from medical problems ranging from scaling and rashes to respiratory problems.

“Based on testing results received to date, Arkema has not detected chemicals in off-site ash, soil, surface or drinking water samples that exceeded Residential Protective Concentration Levels established by TCEQ for soil and groundwater,” company spokesperson Janet Smith said in an email to Houston Public Media.

Harris County’s full statement can be found here.

Post-Harvey Lessons For Chemical Plant Managers

One of the many hazards exposed by Hurricane Harvey occurred in Crosby, Texas, when the Arkema chemical plant suffered fires and small explosions on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. Floodwaters caused the fires by penetrating the facility and shutting down the cooling systems designed to stabilize 500,000 pounds of highly flammable materials inside. This ultimately caused a mandatory evacuation for all residents within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant. Local news outlets reported that Arkema had no plan in place for six feet of flooding and its last risk assessment was submitted in 2013.

With Hurricane Irma being tracked at 175 miles per hour in the Caribbean, it is possible that chemical plants in the path of destruction—including Florida and the southeastern United States—may face a similar scenario. Regardless of the location of your plant, here are some tips that can help reduce potential business interruption and physical injury during a major natural disaster:

Update your risk assessment. Use Harvey as a catalyst to revisit your risk assessment, especially since new information has emerged about the potential for natural hazards or disasters that can trigger a chemical accident. As recently discussed, the best assessments do more than just feature a column of checked boxes to achieve an organization’s objectives and mitigate business interruption. “They prioritize top risks, assign risk ownership, and most critically, integrate risk management and accountability into front line business decision-making,” says Dean Simone, PWC’s U.S., Asia-Pacific, and Americas Cluster Risk Assurance Leader.

Submit the assessment to the EPA or other government-appointed body, like your state’s Commission on Environmental Quality. Your facility needs to be able to withstand significant damage to prevent further incidents and public harm. The feedback will hopefully provide some useful criticism to ensure public safety and business continuity.

According to ABC’s Houston affiliate:

In at least one of Arkema’s hazard mitigation plans filed with the federal government, plant officials acknowledged that flooding is a risk. The site sits in a FEMA “high-risk” floodplain that has flooded in the past, leading to a power failure. That time, the site only had six inches of water, a former plant worker said.

It was later revealed in an internal company timeline of events that Arkema did not move temperature-sensitive chemicals via refrigerated trucks and instead banked on its two backup systems, which failed. It seems certain that Arkema will have to consider at least six feet of floodwater when it revises its plan.

Institute an emergency plant management system. This may be included in your company’s risk assessment, and it is important that your employees also know the protocol when it comes to disaster prevention. This includes establishing the lines of authority and communication while on-site and during a catastrophe. OSHA provides guidance for chemical plant management in the event of a mass disaster.

Develop public-facing communications plans. Your communications team, led by an executive officer, should have advisory plans in place in anticipation of, during and following an emergency. The good news is that you don’t have to draft them from scratch. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers communications worksheets, templates and guides dedicated to water, sanitation and hygiene-related emergencies and outbreaks. You can customize these documents to reflect your organization’s capabilities and to alert nearby residents and businesses.

Be sure to issue advisories through all possible outlets, including social media. One thing Arkema did correctly was send press releases, incident statements and alerts via Twitter in addition to traditional outlets in order to keep as many people informed as possible.

Communicate with local authorities and emergency workers. All energy plants impact their local communities, surrounding areas and ecosystems. Your company’s hazard plans should be communicated to local fire and police departments and hospitals. This ensures that emergency workers know the potential dangers your plant faces in the event of a disaster and the steps you plan to take to mitigate them.

Harvey Losses Could Reach $90 Billion

With weeks to go before floodwaters recede in some parts of Texas, Hurricane Harvey—which delivered more than three feet of rain in areas of Houston—has so far caused at least 38 deaths and numerous injuries. Harvey was downgraded to a storm Wednesday night, but tens of thousands of people are still in shelters, some of which are also flooded, fearful of what they will find when they return to their homes.

“Hurricane Harvey has already broken all U.S. records for tropical cyclone-driven extreme rainfall, with observed cumulative amounts of 51 inches,” Michael Young, RMS head of Americas climate risk modeling said in a statement.

Joel N. Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather declared Hurricane Harvey to be, “The costliest and worst natural disaster in American history. AccuWeather has raised its estimate of the impact to the nation’s gross national product to $190 billion or a full one percent, which exceeds totals of economic impact of Katrina and Sandy combined.”

Damage assessments are climbing, with modeling and analytics firm RMS now estimating that losses incurred by wind, storm surge and inland flooding could be as high as $70 billion-$90 billion. The majority of losses are coming from inland flooding in the Houston metropolitan area, where more than seven million properties top $1.5 trillion in value. RMS said the estimate includes damage to all residential, commercial, industrial and automotive risks in the area, as well as possible inflation from an area-wide demand surge.

According to RMS:

Most losses will be uninsured, given that private flood insurance is limited. However, although the insured losses will remain uncertain for some time they will be significant, as private coverage is not consistent: there are significant variations in how coverage is provided by individual insurers.

Coverage for some of the residential losses has been provided by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). There are approximately 500,000 NFIP policies that will be affected by Harvey, and the losses to the program will be very significant – potentially the largest event to date. However, NFIP penetration rates are as low as 20% in the Houston area, and thus most of the losses will be uninsured. This will rekindle the public policy debate around this issue.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott estimated that more than $125 billion in federal funding will be required to help the state recover from Hurricane Harvey, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Adding to the area’s woes were two explosions at the Arkema Inc. chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, 20 miles northeast of Houston early on Thursday.

The plant, which produces organic peroxides used in products like kitchen counter tops, polystyrene cups and plates, industrial paints and PVC pipes., was without electric service since Sunday and lost refrigeration when backup generators were flooded. Because the products need to be kept cold to prevent a chemical reaction, workers had moved them from warehouses into diesel-powered refrigerated containers, but those were also flooded.

A sheriff’s deputy was taken to a hospital after inhaling fumes, according to Reuters.

Residents in a 1.5-mile radius of the Arkema plant were evacuated on Tuesday, and water levels there make it too dangerous for workers to assess the situation from the ground, officials added.

Arkema urged people to stay away as the fire burns out. Black smoke was billowing from the site, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said at a televised news briefing.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it had temporarily barred flights from the area because of the risk of fire or explosion.