Before flames and smoke leaped into the sky over the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, last week, Jolyn Masters was hunkered down at home on a Hurricane Harvey-flooded street a mile away. Then came a knock. A National Guard evacuation boat was waiting because of what was expected at Arkema.
For the next three days, Masters called a company hot line for information about the nine trailers containing volatile chemicals on Arkema’s property. “I was on a first-name basis with one of the ladies,” Masters said.
By the time she returned home on Labor Day, the trailers had burned. Nobody had died. But Masters couldn’t offer comfort to people living near chemical plants as Hurricane Irma bears down. “This wasn’t anything foreseeable,” she said. “So I wouldn’t even know what to tell those people.”
What happened in Crosby could happen in Florida, with more disastrous results. It could happen in Homestead, near a pair of nuclear generators; or at plants near Tallahassee that produce potentially explosive ammonia; or rural communities with an expanse of phosphate mines not far from the Gulf Coast.
While Crosby appears to have avoided serious tragedy, Arkema executives admitted they were unprepared. The potential dangers stored within chemical plants remain unclear because regulators have acquiesced to industry demands that such information be kept secret for fear of terrorism. And Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt delayed for two years Obama-era rules requiring companies to be more transparent about what’s in plants and their plans to keep them safe.
“One of the best ways to better prepare for these emergencies is to know what you’re dealing with,” said Bill Hoyle, a former senior investigator with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency. “What are the chemicals? How much of the chemical is there and what’s the potential impact? I am sure the people evacuated in Crosby had no idea they were in a vulnerability zone.”
The incident at the 43-year-old plant owned by Arkema SA of Paris, France, provided some of Harvey’s most dramatic pictures -- and a fortunate anticlimax. But an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, showed that the Houston area’s hundreds of refineries and petrochemical operations released almost 1 million pounds of air pollutants in Harvey-related spills and flares, including benzene, sulfur dioxide, toluene, and xylene. The effects might not be known for months.
Before Harvey, the American Chemistry Council industry group issued a statement saying, "Chemical companies know well to avoid the dangers of being unprepared." This week, spokeswoman Anne Kolton said in an email that the group’s members "are taking Hurricane Irma extremely seriously."
The Arkema plant generates about $30 million in annual revenue, less than 1% of its parent’s total. It was among 55 Houston-area facilities named as potentially harmful in a 2015 Houston Chronicle investigation done with Texas A&M University. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration this year fined the plant $91,274 for 10 safety violations, including some that involved mishandling of hazardous materials.
As with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster in 2011, water defied Arkema’s efforts to protect the facility in the town of 2,300 about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Houston. When reporters asked how the company prepared, Arkema president Richard Rennard said, "Certainly we didn’t anticipate having six feet of water in our plant."
The big problem was 19.5 tons of organic peroxides, used as catalysts in plastics manufacturing, which must be kept cool or they will ignite. When Harvey cut power, Arkema turned to generators that flooded; as at Fukushima, they were below the level of the rising waters.
Arkema had shut down the plant as Harvey barreled into Texas. It moved the peroxides away from chemicals like sulfur dioxide to the nine trailers with their own cooling systems. When those failed, Arkema told the world that explosions would ensue.
The first blast came early Aug. 31. Emergency workers were overcome by fumes, with police officers vomiting and gasping for air, according to a lawsuit filed against Arkema on Thursday by seven first responders. After a second explosion the next day, Masters received a call from Arkema saying yet another was coming. A few minutes later: boom!
Rennard said, “I’m not sure what more we could have done to provide additional layers of security to provide power to the site.” He said no dangerous chemicals had been released.
"This is a fire," he told reporters. “We are watching physics at work."
The Chemical Safety Board -- which was slated for elimination in a Trump administration budget proposal -- said it would investigate. Masters and her neighbors returned to the evacuation zone. Residents were cautioned to drink bottled water and wear surgical masks. The EPA said aerial monitoring detected no high levels of toxins in the air.
Florida should be so fortunate. Its petrochemical footprint isn’t nearly as large as Houston’s, but a map prepared by the nonprofit group Environment Florida shows scores of plants, storage depots, refineries, wastewater treatment facilities and EPA Superfund sites that could release hazardous materials.
Port Tampa Bay alone handles ammonia, unleaded gasoline, sulfuric acid and ethanol. The port was operating on Sept. 7, but will halt shipping if the Coast Guard forecasts gale-force winds of at least 39 miles per hour hitting within the 24 hours to come.
Jennifer Rubiello, state director for Environment Florida, said in an email that industrial sites are poorly regulated and "even well-regulated sites can and do fail." She said she couldn’t pinpoint Florida’s riskiest because operators aren’t required to disclose emergency plans.
Florida Power & Light Co. operates two nuclear-power generators 25 miles south of Miami at the mainland’s southernmost tip. They were built in the early 1970s, when engineers couldn’t imagine how rising seas could increase storm surges, said Bill Newton, deputy director of the Florida Consumer Action Network.
Fukushima’s nuclear plants melted down after tsunami’s surge cut power to cooling pumps, and Irma could do the same at Florida Power’s Turkey Point plants, Newton said. “You lose the cooling, you lose the whole thing,” he said.
Peter Robbins, a spokesman for the utility, said that comparing Turkey Point to Fukushima is "irresponsible."
The Florida plant was built to withstand Category 5 storms, and absorbed a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago, Robbins said. Equipment to mitigate flooding was added after Fukushima, and the plant and backup generators are 20 feet above sea level. Operations will stop before any storm impact, he said.
Then, there are the mines. Central Florida contains the nation’s largest deposits of phosphate, a key fertilizer ingredient. Mosaic Co. of Plymouth, Minnesota, digs the ore from 200,000 acres and breaks it down with sulfuric acid, creating a byproduct called phosphogypsum that contains small amounts of radioactive uranium and radium. Because the phosphogypsum market is tiny, about 1 billion tons is piled in more than 20 stacks around the mines, according to Florida Polytechnic University researchers.
Runoff can contaminate drinking and fishing waters from stacks that are inadequately contained, said Jaclyn Lopez, director for the Center for Biological Diversity’s Florida office. Spills precipitated by Hurricane Francis in 2004 killed marine animals. Last year, millions of gallons of contaminated water sluiced into an aquifer after a sinkhole opened beneath a Mosaic stack.
“It’s hard to say what the implications of 15 to 20 inches of rain would be,” Lopez said. “It opens new pathways into the environment.”
Ben Pratt, a spokesman for Mosaic, said the company has begun hurricane preparations at the phosphate facilities and has not yet decided whether to shut down.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in an interview that staff are being dispatched to monitor Irma’s impacts, and he’s not stinting on manpower. "If someone needs 10 people, send them 20," he said. "If they need 20, send them 40."
Workers are evaluating about 80 Superfund sites from Miami to North Carolina, and the agency is working with owners to secure them, he said.
Back in Crosby, Masters said Arkema handled its problem as well as could be expected. Other locals aren’t as positive, she said, but, “even the people that disagree are still both out there helping the neighbor pull carpet out of their house.”
By Jack Kaskey, Ryan Collins and Bryan Gruley