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Two small explosions last night at a Texas chemical facility highlight that comprehensive emergency regulations need to be enforced more strictly at chemical plants.
Rain from Hurricane Harvey flooded the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, damaging its refrigeration system. The plant stores dangerous organic peroxides, which need to be kept cool or they become volatile. The lack of refrigeration led to the explosions. The Federal Emergency Management Agency warns that the plant is still “incredibly dangerous.” In its worst-case scenario plan from 2014, Arkema stated that in the case of an explosion, 1.1 million residents could be impacted over a radius of 23 miles.
Commonsense regulations could help us to avoid these explosions, and may have averted this current disaster. In June, the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was delaying an Obama-era rule aimed at improving safety at U.S. chemical plants. This rule would have strengthened the federal Risk Management Program (RMP), which addresses some 12,500 facilities that use or store large quantities of highly toxic or highly flammable chemicals. Under the new rules, Arkema and other plants would have to engage in more coordination with local first responders to plan for incidents and make it easier for community members to learn about plant dangers. Further, the rule would require plants to evaluate whether they need greater safety improvements and emergency preparedness, such as strengthening backup power so refrigeration would be maintained in a storm.
“The people of Texas have suffered enough from this natural disaster. And as Americans pitch together to provide support and relief for those affected by the floods, the added danger from chemical explosions is unconscionable,” said Kara Cook-Schultz, of Illinois PIRG. “The Trump Administration should listen to Americans across the country who have demanded more safety regulations on these chemical plants.”
It is possible that the organic chemicals at the Arkema plant could be neutralized—however, the public cannot verify that, because Arkema does not provide information about the exact chemicals stored at their facility. Under the proposed rules delayed by the Trump administration, Arkema would have to provide that information to the public in the future.
These Arkema explosions are not isolated incidents. According to the EPA, roughly 150 chemical disasters occur each year. In the worst cases, these disasters result in fatalities and serious injuries, with many others resulting in evacuations, and risk of harm to public health. One of the worst recent disasters was also in Texas. In 2013. in the town of West, 15 Americans died in a chemical plant explosion. More than 100 million Americans live within the vulnerability zone of a hazardous chemical facility, and one in every three schoolchildren in the U.S. attends a school within a danger zone.
Illinois PIRG urges the Trump administration to implement the regulations requiring more coordination with emergency management, to have greater regulations on these facilities, and to provide more money for research into non-toxic alternatives for many of these chemical plants. Our thoughts are with the Crosby community and the first responders on the scene at this time.
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