September 1, 2017 / 10:24 PM / in a year

Texas plant fires, leaks during Harvey show need for regulation, critics say

(Reuters) - Chemical fires and leaks at Texas industrial facilities during Tropical Storm Harvey underscore the need for regulation and oversight that the Trump administration has sought to roll back, according to environmental groups and the head of the federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents.

The flooded plant of French chemical maker Arkema SA, which produces organic peroxides, is seen after fires were reported at the facilty after Tropical Storm Harvey passed in Crosby, Texas, U.S. August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

A petrochemicals plant in Crosby, Texas, owned by Arkema SA, suffered explosions and fire this week due to power outages caused by Harvey’s record rainfall, while dozens of other refineries and plants along the Texas Coast reported spills and releases as a result of the storm.

“This whole situation at the Crosby plant shows how inadequate chemical safety policies are,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

She said companies should be required to disclose more of the chemicals they store on site and be subject to more regulatory oversight.

Greater disclosure of what is stored at petrochemical plants could allow emergency responders such as firefighters to do their jobs more safely and efficiently, Goldman said.

Also, she said, stricter regulations may not have prevented every problem encountered by Texas plants including the one in Crosby. But they could have alleviated many of them, such as by requiring backup generators to be higher than worst-case scenario flood levels.

In March, Trump called for the elimination of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates chemical accidents, drawing criticism from environmental, labor and safety advocates.

Vanessa Allen Sutherland, chairwoman of the board, told reporters on Thursday that it is the only body that conducts deep investigations into incidents like the one in Crosby.

“If we were to be eliminated, there isn’t another entity that is poised to fill in the gaps” and find root causes of sometimes-deadly chemical accidents, Sutherland said.

On Friday, White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said, “We will let you know once we have any official announcements,” regarding the CSB’s future.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also delayed the implementation of stiffer standards, put together by President Barack Obama’s EPA, until February 2019. That program would have required increased public disclosure of the chemicals being held at industrial facilities.

    EPA Administrator Scott “Pruitt’s decision to suspend these protections sent a disruptive signal that companies need not prepare for compliance with the rule’s safeguards,” the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund said in an email after the explosions at the Arkema plant.

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham said the delay did not have bearing on the Arkema incident because, even without the delay, the rules would not yet have been in effect.

FEAR OF ATTACKThe Trump administration is examining concerns among some law enforcement officials that providing public access to information about chemicals stored at industrial facilities could make them targets for attacks.

During this week’s storms, the 49-year-old Arkema plant lost power, and then two backup systems were also flooded. Chemicals there need to be kept cool or they catch fire or explode, and explosions began early Thursday morning. Residents within 1.5 miles (2.3 km) of the plant were evacuated.

More fires are likely at the plant, a top official with Arkema said on Friday.

Other refiners and petrochemicals plants along the Texas Coast have reported dozens of other mishaps to state regulators as a result of the storm, including spills from storage tanks whose roofs collapsed under heavy rainfall, overflows from wastewater containment pits and heavy flaring of chemicals.

The EPA on Thursday warned Texans to limit exposure to flood waters that may contain a wide array of pollutants.

Additional reporting by Valarie Volovici in Washington; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Cynthia Osterman

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