As events unfolded in Houston with Hurricane Harvey. I watched Rachel Maddow’s interview with Matt Dempsey of the Houston Chronicle. Dempsey had investigated the Arkema Inc. plant in Crosby, TX, the chemicals it stores, and its emergency protocols. That caught my attention as my best friend is a co-owner of—and my husband works at—a hazardous-material reporting firm here in Peoria, IL.
I wondered how that Texas plant could refuse to share its material-safety data information with the public and press, especially during a major natural disaster affecting local residents, which are also its neighbors.
During the segment, Dempsey shared talked about his yearlong investigation into the general safety of the plant, and others like it in the region. He said Arkema’s CEO claims he’s not required to publicly share details of the dangerous chemicals stored in inventory, according to state law.
It was a frightening revelation given that the situation seemed especially volatile with both the flooding and a power outage exposing the stored toxins to improper environmental conditions. Dempsey called for company officials to share the information with the public, as improper containment could lead to a chemical disaster. In fact, Arkema’s spokesperson confirmed earlier in the day that an explosion at the site was inevitable.
The idea that the public, already battling a natural disaster, might face additional suffering did not sit well with me. So, I asked local experts for help, and began collecting data. I’m no environmental scientist, but I can read, write, and understand corporate marketing & public relations. And Tier II reporting—required filing of sensitive chemicals to local, state, and federal governments—is a popular topic in my nerdy household.
The morning after Maddow’s show, I awoke to find that there was an explosion at the Arkema plant. After I’d barely finished my first coffee, I heard more explosions were expected.
After consulting with a local hazardous-reporting firm, Logical Technology, I obtained what was believed to be Arkema’s Federal EPA Tier II report, but later discovered was its FormR paperwork. For what it’s worth, I forwarded the documents to Maddow’s show and Dempsey at the Chronicle.
The FormR still confirms considerable usage throughout the reporting year of specific chemicals at Arkema’s site. Follow up reporting on MSNBC suggests that officials are being vague about the chemicals both currently being released and about to be released into the local environment.
My own impatience as a reporter, and the feeling that what I found could be of high environmental consequence, pushed me to release the details so experts could review it and determine the safest actions for those living in the area as soon as possible.
The TRI and FormR reports are available through the EPA, and therefore are available to the public. As current laws stand, not all states are required to share the Tier II reports. My hope is that experts can take a look at the FormR data and do what a responsible company should have cared to do: provide a basic, minimum show of concern for the citizens surrounding its profitable facility, which poses a danger to humans and the environment during emergency situations.
My findings so far: The inherent dangers of chemicals entering the air/water can easily be determined after examining the following hazardous warning sheet created with Logical Technology’s hazMIN Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) searchable query:
Logical’s VP, Derek Weber, volunteered a couple hours of personal time to show me how the public can access the federally-required corporate filings from companies producing and/or storing potentially harmful chemicals. He also gave me a basic tutorial on how to read chemical reporting details returned by the EPA’s Envirofacts database, which stores the agency’s preliminary 2016 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) dataset.
During 2016, Arkema’s Crosby facility claimed to use four major chemicals that required federal reporting with the EPA.TRI report shows 10 items in the past two decades used at Arkema’s Crosby, TX, location.
Arkema reported itself as a facility storing Cumene in 2016, a chemical agent the EPA deems a potential carcinogen. Benzoyl Chloride is also on Arkema’s required 2016 EPA TRI filing. The chemical, just one of four the company claimed to use during the year, is also categorized as a probable carcinogen by the EPA.
The story took confusing turns as officials and corporate reps spoke up about it. Again, I am not a scientist, just a concerned journalist who saw another reporter struggling to get answers while officials appeared unable to provide them, and the company and ground-level responders did little to clear things up.
Arkema’s corporate response, so far, is a mix of efforts to minimize risk to the public, while alerting officials and neighbors within 1.5 miles that more explosions are coming. In fact, Richard Rennard, Arkema’s president of acrylic monomers, told CNBC, “There is a possibility that an explosion could happen.” He said the company’s safety measures included using both emergency generators and liquid nitrogen to keep the peroxides cold. However, he added that there were eight containers of the volatile peroxide remaining, which he expected to break down and combust.
CNBC said: “Rennard did not say how long the fires are expected to last. While the smoke from the fires will cause irritation ‘just like any fires,’ ” Rennard said he does not believe the smoke is “lethal.”
While Rennard apologized for Arkema’s safety failures after pressure from the press drew national attention, the response seemed underwhelming. Rennard’s comments were followed up with those from Arkema spokesman Jeff Carr. Carr told NBC News that the released chemicals could “have the effects of a large campfire.” And, although the company hasn’t remained totally silent, it has spent most of the past few days greatly downplaying the risk of the exact combustibles it won’t share with the media, but its own press release disclosed, are “stored in multiple locations on the site.”
Arkema’s relaxed and confusing tone in these responses carried over and set the mood of local officials on the scene. Consider that the EPA classifies four of Arkema’s chemicals dangerous enough in the amounts the company stores to require annual reporting, and then read Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s statement to NPR on the company’s self-described site explosion: “it wasn’t an explosion, I want to be very clear. It was not an explosion,” Gonzalez said. In fact, at an earlier press conference, the sheriff offered that inhaling the burning vapors of EPA-labeled probable carcinogens as harmless as, “standing over a burning campfire.”
It seems unnecessarily burdensome to leave a community with too few or downplayed reactions because a company and officials are more concerned with “not panicking the public.”
Further, I was shocked to learn that Texas doesn’t consider its citizens worthy of forcing companies to release reports highly dangerous chemicals located near residential neighborhoods. That realization definitely brought on the question of how many other states lack reporting regulations.
I feel compelled to continue to report on this topic, as it could impact the health of residents and first responders in these situations. I will continue to research what can be done to encourage all local, state, and federal governments to require companies to share the Tier II reports. For now, though, it’s important for citizens to realize that the EPA provides searchable data on its site that can serve useful when disasters strike neighborhoods with chemical plants. Unfortunately, this does not mean a company with these chemicals will take responsibility for enforcing safety, reporting regulations, or aiding the public in critical moments like these.
Citizens may have to pay an even higher price if they exposed to burning chemicals produced and stored by companies, which feel entitled to hide the existence of dangerous chemicals.
I pray for all of those hurt by the storm, and say a special prayer for residents of Crosby.