NINE DAYS OF CHAOS

Arkema doc­u­ments show poor planning, me­chan­i­cal fail­ures led to chem­i­cal fires dur­ing the worst of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Matt Dempsey and Ja­cob Carpenter

Prior to the chem­i­cal fire at its Crosby plant, Arkema un­der­es­ti­mated the po­ten­tial for storm dam­age and failed to keep es­sen­tial backup power pro­tected from ris­ing flood­wa­ters, doc­u­ments ob­tained by the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle show.

Poor planning and a se­ries of cas­cad­ing equip­ment fail­ures led to dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals erupt­ing into flame in late Au­gust dur­ing the height of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey. The mis­cal­cu­la­tions in­di­cate the com­pany’s lack of prepa­ra­tion for more than 3 feet of flood­ing, re­flected by an emer­gency man­age­ment plan that barely ad­dressed how to han­dle such a storm.

Those judg­ments led to the burn­ing of nine trail­ers con­tain­ing the com­pany’s stock­pile of or­ganic per­ox­ides. The re­sult­ing in­ferno ex­posed first re­spon­ders and lo­cal res­i­dents to dan­ger­ous fumes and pulled emer­gency staffers away from hur­ri­cane re­cov­ery at a crit­i­cal time.

Arkema of­fi­cials ar­gue that un­prece­dented floods made it im­pos­si­ble to pre­vent its chem­i­cals from catch­ing fire. The site had only seen up to 2 feet of flood­ing in the past, com­pany of­fi­cials said.

The Chron­i­cle ob­tained Arkema’s in­ter­nal records from the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and con­ducted in­ter­views with gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees with knowl­edge of on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the events at the plant. The emerg­ing pic­ture re­veals nine days of chaos, cul­mi­nat­ing with the de­ci­sion to in­ten­tion­ally burn chem­i­cals that posed a dan­ger to the pub­lic.

The records, ob­tained through the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act, and in­ter­views show that:

• Arkema’s emer­gency re­sponse plan pro­vided em­ploy­ees with lit­tle di­rec­tion for how to han­dle ma­jor flood­ing events. It con­tained one para­graph about flood­ing but a page and a half on han­dling bomb threats, records show.

•Arkema’s main power trans­form­ers and its pow­er­ful backup gen­er­a­tors were not high enough off the ground, caus­ing them to be­come sub­merged with flood­wa­ters, Arkema records show. With­out power, the com­pany could not keep its stash of or­ganic per­ox­ides at a safe tem­per­a­ture inside its re­frig­er­ated build­ings.

• The com­pany’s last re­sort for keep­ing or­ganic per­ox­ides cool — re­frig­er­ated trail­ers — also was des­tined to fail. The dieselpow­ered trail­ers had fuel tanks that ran along the bot­tom of the ve­hi­cle. More than 3 feet of wa­ter com­pro­mised the fuel tanks, caus­ing the freez­ers to die.

• Arkema had a tank of an ex­tremely dan­ger­ous chem­i­cal, isobuty­lene, lo­cated about 40 yards from six trail­ers that had been re­lo­cated dur­ing the storm, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views and satel­lite images. Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials were con­cerned about a chain re­ac­tion with that chem­i­cal that could have led to cat­a­strophic re­sults.

Arkema of­fi­cials said again Tues­day that no amount of planning could have pro­tected its site from the storm.

“Many of your con­clu­sions fail to rec­og­nize that Hur­ri­cane Har­vey was un­like any rain event Hous­ton ever ex­pe­ri­enced,” com­pany spokes­woman Janet Smith said in an email. “FEMA’s 500year flood map doesn’t ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion that oc­curred dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.”

Four days af­ter Har­vey made land­fall in Texas, the Arkema plant was un­der 7 feet of wa­ter. The last em­ploy­ees to evac­u­ate the site left by boat, float­ing over a 6-foot chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, the records show.

“Flood­ing in Hous­ton is a per­fectly fore­see­able event,” said Paul Orum, an in­de­pen­dent Wash­ing­ton, D.C., con­sul­tant and long­time chem­i­cal safety ad­vo­cate. “Fa­cil­i­ties should be pre­pared when it comes to sev­eral dif­fer­ent lay­ers of flood­ing.”

Lines laid low

Arkema, a French multi­na­tional com­pany, man­u­fac­tures chem­i­cals used to cre­ate plas­tic prod­ucts. Many of its pro­pri­etary com­pounds are clas­si­fied as or­ganic per­ox­ides, which must be kept at tem­per­a­tures well be­low freez­ing to pre­vent the chem­i­cals from catch­ing fire.

With Hur­ri­cane Har­vey bear­ing down on South­east Texas and the Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter warn­ing of po­ten­tially “cat­a­strophic” or “life-threat­en­ing” flood­ing, the com­pany’s plans for pro­tect­ing its prod­uct were sim­ple: keep the chem­i­cals cold on-site.

The com­pany had mul­ti­ple freezer build­ings, six backup gen­er­a­tors, and, as a last re­sort, re­frig­er­ated trucks. Doc­u­ments pro­vided to the Chron­i­cle did not in­di­cate any plans to drive the or­ganic per­ox­ides away from Har­vey’s im­pact.

But Arkema’s plan for Har­vey was based on one flawed as­sump­tion: that the site would never ex­pe­ri­ence floods higher than 3 feet. By the end of the week­end, the rain had ex­ceeded that to­tal.

On the af­ter­noon of Aug. 27, two days af­ter the storm made land­fall, Arkema em­ploy­ees rid­ing out the storm be­came con­cerned that flood­wa­ters would seep into the pri­mary power trans­form­ers, ac­cord­ing to the crew’s logs. If that hap­pened, the plan was to start the backup gen­er­a­tors; one of them was con­nected to re­frig­er­ated build­ings keep­ing the or­ganic per­ox­ides cold.

At the same time, em­ploy­ees were al­ready aware that a backup liq­uid ni­tro­gen sys­tem was use­less af­ter flood­wa­ters reached the pipes that would pump freez­ing ni­tro­gen into build­ings.

Within 24 hours, the pri­mary trans­form­ers and two gen­er­a­tors pow­er­ing the re­frig­er­ated build­ings were in­un­dated with flood­wa­ters, records show.

In planning for cat­a­strophic flood­ing, Arkema could have el­e­vated its backup gen­er­a­tors on plat­forms or placed them on roofs, said Rick Laine, a sales­man for Cay Power Prod­ucts Co. of Hous­ton. Laine noted that it’s rare, but not im­pos­si­ble, for gen­er­a­tors to be placed on plat­forms sev­eral feet above the ground.

“We some­times see them el­e­vated that high in Galve­ston with the storm surge, but not in a place that’s way out there like Crosby,” Laine said.

By the night of Aug. 27, the 12 em­ploy­ees rid­ing out the storm at Arkema were in a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion. Only one freezer build­ing still had power. Their land lines were out. The in­ter­net was out. Wa­ter was about a foot away from the main trans­form­ers. They had al­ready moved some of the per­ox­ides into freezer trucks and used heavy equip­ment to re­lo­cate the trail­ers far­ther from the work­ers.

“This ef­fort of our ride out crew has been noth­ing short of heroic,” the crew’s log reads.

But the crew’s cir­cum­stances were only go­ing to get worse.

A toxic cloud?

With the liq­uid ni­tro­gen sys­tem down and backup gen­er­a­tors in­un­dated, the team spent most of Aug. 28 wad­ing through flood­wa­ters to move the re­main­ing per­ox­ides into re­frig­er­ated trail­ers, the doc­u­ments show.

It was the last line of de­fense – and one that was al­ready fail­ing.

As em­ploy­ees stuffed 48 pal­lets of or­ganic per­ox­ides into a trailer, two other freezer trail­ers died, crew logs show. Arkema told em­ploy­ees to move to the front of the site so they wouldn’t be near the trail­ers if they caught fire, ac­cord­ing to a fam­ily mem­ber of one of the work­ers.

The next day, Aug. 29, the work­ers were or­dered to evac­u­ate. Lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials or­dered every­one within 1.5 miles of the plant to leave, af­fect­ing about 300 homes. Dur­ing the next two days, three re­frig­er­ated trail­ers lost the abil­ity to cool the chem­i­cals, caus­ing the first fires that burned over Crosby.

The first fire started in the mid­dle of the night of Aug. 31. Fumes from one trailer swept over the evac­u­a­tion zone, where sher­iff ’s deputies were pa­trolling. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cers man­ning the perime­ter and med­i­cal staff re­spond­ing to the scene dou­bled over, vom­it­ing and gasp­ing for breath, ac­cord­ing to a civil law­suit filed against Arkema by the first re­spon­ders. In all, 23 peo­ple were briefly hos­pi­tal­ized.

“The scene was noth­ing less than chaos,” the law­suit states.

Two more trail­ers caught fire on Sept. 1. Two days later, mem­bers of the Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment’s bomb squad en­tered the site and placed charges on the side of the re­main­ing six trail­ers. Of­fi­cers re­motely det­o­nated the charges, cre­at­ing enough heat to trig­ger the run­away re­ac­tions and burn out the re­main­ing chem­i­cals.

No pub­lic warn­ing

It’s not clear whether Hous­ton po­lice of­fered to do the mis­sion or were asked to par­tic­i­pate by other agen­cies over­see­ing the cri­sis.

The en­tire po­lice op­er­a­tion was con­ducted with­out warn­ing the pub­lic. Un­til the doc­u­ments were re­leased ear­lier this month by the EPA, the pub­lic didn’t know who per­formed the con­trolled burn, or how it was done.

Ul­ti­mately, the bomb squad was suc­cess­ful. The evac­u­a­tion zone was lifted that evening. First re­spon­ders re­turned to help­ing with Har­vey re­cov­ery and Crosby res­i­dents re­turned to their homes.

Through­out the blazes, Arkema and lo­cal of­fi­cials said the fumes were not toxic. And Arkema down­played the odds of other chem­i­cals be­ing af­fected by the flames.

Some gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials wor­ried that a tank con­tain­ing isobuty­lene, an ex­tremely haz­ardous chem­i­cal, could fail when the or­ganic per­ox­ides burned, ac­cord­ing to a source close to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. An isobuty­lene tank fail­ure could have trig­gered a chain re­ac­tion, tak­ing out the com­pany’s sul­fur diox­ide tank and cre­at­ing a toxic cloud. Arkema’s risk-man­age­ment plan said such a re­ac­tion could af­fect more than a mil­lion Hous­ton-area res­i­dents.

The con­cern was so great that the bomb squad set fire to the re­main­ing trail­ers far­thest from the isobuty­lene first, just to be sure. The tank was not dam­aged and did not catch fire.

Mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions con­tinue into the Arkema fires. On Wed­nes­day, the U.S. Chem­i­cal Safety Board will dis­cuss its progress dur­ing a news con­fer­ence.

EPA doc­u­ment

God­ofredo A. Vasquez / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

The Arkema chem­i­cal plant in Crosby was un­der 7 feet of wa­ter days af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey made land­fall. “FEMA’s 500-year flood map doesn’t ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion that oc­curred dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey,” com­pany spokes­woman Janet Smith said Tues­day.

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