2018 Budget Kills Off the Agency Probing the Toxic Houston Chemical Fire; Congress Wants to Keep It
The Trump administration wants to kill off the tiny, independent agency that is investigating the French company where volatile chemicals in Texas exploded after Hurricane Harvey.
Trump’s proposed $1.1 trillion budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 would not fund the Chemical Safety Board, an agency with less than 50 employees and a budget this year of about $11 million or about one thousandth of 1% of Trump’s overall proposed budget.
The board is investigating Arkema, where chemicals exploded at the company’s Crosby, Texas, facility about 25 miles from downtown Houston. Last week three trailers ignited; each was filled with a half-ton of volatile organic peroxides used in plastics and paints. Arkema intentionally burned six others on Sunday.
The Chemical Safety Board has also warned oil and chemical companies to take precautions when restarting plants that were shut down because of the hurricane. Companies have reported more than 1 million pounds of dangerous air pollutants released along the Texas Gulf coast in the week after Harvey.
“It’s clear that what actions and precautions were taken and were in place have proved inadequate,” said Bill Hoyle, a former senior investigator for the board. “When Crosby is resolved, there are many more dominoes to fall in the region.”
Arkema successfully lobbied with help from top Texas Republican lawmakers to delay new regulations that were supposed to improve safety procedures at chemical plants. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt blocked the rules from taking effect.
The Chemical Safety Board was set up by Congress to investigate accidents at chemical plants and oil refineries. Like the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates transportation accidents, the Chemical Safety Board looks for the root cause of accidents and makes recommendations about what industry should do to avoid them.
In Crosby, flood waters knocked out power and generators needed to keep chemicals stored at the Arkema facility cool. Nearby residents were evacuated.
Richard Rowe, Arkema’s CEO for North American operations, said the magnitude of the storm overwhelmed the company’s plan which included extra generators to keep the chemicals cool.
But Sam Mannan of Texas A&M University’s Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center said companies can quench organic peroxides by combining them with another chemical. “It’s safer than letting it go into runaway mode,” Mannan said.
The Chemical Safety Board has suggested tighter regulation of reactive chemicals, such as the ones that exploded in Crosby, since at least 2002.
Congress will ultimately decide whether the board’s investigation of Arkema goes forward. Without money, the board won’t be able to investigate what should be done to prevent explosions like the ones in Crosby.
“Certainly, if we were eliminated, that would hinder our ability to wrap up any open investigation,” said Vanessa Sutherland, the chairperson of the Chemical Safety Board.
Featured Photo: Fire at the Arkema chemical plant near Houston (KTRK video grab).