More than 20 residents of Houston have reported that a chemical plant caught fire and exploded during Hurricane Harvey. Samples have been collected miles away from the chemical plant, which showed evidence of toxic soil, ash, and water pollution.
Several of these residents sent a letter, through their lawyers, to Arkema, Inc., which is where the chief executive of the plant is based. Many other regulatory agencies were also named in the lawsuit, which accuses Arkema of violating multiple environmental regulations laws. Unauthorized chemical spills and releases occurred as a direct result of the company’s failure to properly contain and store its peroxides before, during, and after six feet of water destroyed the facility.
Arkema representatives have not commented on the issue and so far, refuse to say exactly which chemicals spilled out of their plant. The company has also refused to disclose the quantity of chemicals that were in the plant at the time of the fire. It was only after days of public pressure that Arkema released the names of the chemicals that were being housed in their plant on the company’s website, in the month prior to Harvey.
Signaling that Arkema’s days in court will soon become all too common, Harris County’s civil attorney and the criminal district attorney, which represent the city of Houston, announced a lawsuit and investigation regarding Arkema. To make matters worse for Arkema, last month, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the United States Chemical Safety Board announced that they too were investigating Arkema.
In addition, a lawsuit is being brought by the state of Texas, on behalf of two dozen local homeowners and first responders, claiming negligence against Arkema for both making these individuals physically sick as well as Arkema’s failure to warn anyone about the hazards of breathing this unknowably toxic air.
Executives for Arkema have claimed to have followed all of the necessary safety precautions, even in the case of flooding conditions via bringing in backup generators and moving the containers, which contained chemicals, to a higher elevation. Examining Arkema’s accident plans, which had previously been filed yearly with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), shows that Arkema viewed the possibilities of hurricanes, floods, and power loss as potential hazards.
However, even with the National Weather Service’s Aug. 25 warning that up to 50 inches of rain were imminent, Arkema representatives claim that they could not have predicted this amount of destruction.
As Hurricane Harvey began its record rainfall, the generators at Arkema’s Crosby facility failed, which led to the refrigeration systems also shutting down, which then caused the peroxides to destabilize. These types of peroxides are frequently used in paints and plastics, among other products.
On Aug. 29, Arkema abandoned its site in Crosby, which is located 25 miles northeast of Houston. In case of any possible fires and/or explosions, a 1.5-mile perimeter was evacuated near the Crosby facility, which displaced hundreds of residents for almost an entire week.
On Aug. 31, a container that carried unknown hazardous chemicals exploded after catching fire. Before first responders were treated at a local hospital for exposure, an Arkema executive said that the smoke from the plant was simply “a non-toxic irritant.”
After another container exploded on Sept. 4, the rest of the containers were burned under supervision. Still, an Arkema executive claimed that the plant’s tested air quality revealed, especially in the evacuated areas, “no evidence of any issues.”
However, the following weeks, the lawyers, who represent the locals residents, revealed that, after each explosion had sent black smoke into the air, the residents found “a strange ash material and a mysterious black residue on the ground.”
Scientists collected many different samples from nearby and an additional 1.5 miles away from the plant only to discover the presence of several toxic chemicals. This information was revealed in a letter that was signed by the residents’ attorney, Mark F. Underwood.
Upon further analysis, these chemicals were revealed to contain volatile organic compounds that have been known to cause cancer and harmful polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are formed during the unfinished burning of organic chemicals. Dioxins and furans were also detected in the samples, which, according to the EPA, are known to cause a hormone imbalance in the exposed individuals.
Underwood’s letter goes on to say, “Given the toxicity of the substances released, the 1.5-mile perimeter was not far enough to adequately protect either first responders or those living beyond the perimeter who were not evacuated.”
Unbeknownst to these residents, these toxic chemicals entered their systems through the air and the water. Some of these residents have reported suffering the effects of these hazardous chemicals, without mentioning any specifics.
Underwood’s letter further reads, “Exposure to this toxic mixture in the environment through human pathways caused bodily injury and has created a need for a community-wide remediation effort, changes in Arkema’s operation and a medical monitoring program to protect the public from risk.”
A 2016 study, which was conducted by Texas A&M researchers, identified Arkema’s facility as one of the most dangerous risks in a section of the country with the highest number of petroleum plants.