Authorities are allowing residents living near a burned and flooded Texas chemical plant to return to their homes after the French owner deliberately set fire to the last remaining containers of volatile products in a bid to secure the site.
The fire department in Crosby, Texas, said the area around the Arkema SA manufacturing site, located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of downtown Houston, is safe after the company burnt stored organic peroxides in a “controlled ignition,” according to a company statement on Monday. All nine tractor-trailer sized containers of the chemicals have now been destroyed, a spokeswoman said.
Refrigeration systems needed to cool highly-flammable products stored at the Arkema plant were knocked out by power outages and widespread flooding after the region was hit by Hurricane Harvey. The first fires and explosions broke out Thursday, after authorities had evacuated residents in a 1.5-mile radius around the plant. In total, Arkema has allowed 500,000 pounds of peroxides to burn off, including through deliberately-set blazes.
The plant was among dozens of chemical facilities in Hurricane Harvey’s path that were shut down, knocking out more than half of U.S. production of some of the most-used chemicals and plastics. Organic peroxides have many uses, including in bombs and to treat acne. The most well-known is hydrogen peroxide used in hair color products.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been flying a surveillance aircraft over the area to check for airborne toxic chemicals. The EPA detected no high levels, it said last week in an emailed statement, nevertheless advising residents to avoid smoke and flood waters.
Arkema was among the companies that lobbied the EPA to prevent new regulations from taking effect which would have forced more disclosure about the types and quantities of chemicals stored on site. The firm declined to publicly disclose the exact volumes and location on the site of chemicals known as Tier II Inventory. Daryl Roberts, vice president for manufacturing, engineering and regulatory services in the U.S, cited the risk of terrorism.
A spokeswoman said she wasn’t immediately able to comment on the risks. The Colombes, France-based company published a list of chemicals at the Crosby plant on its website.
The lack of publicly disclosed details about the chemicals makes sense, but given the fears generated by the incident, the company could have made an exception, according to Andrea Sella, a chemistry professor at UCL in London. More thought should be put into how materials are stored in order to protect them from potential intruders and natural disasters, he said.
“There is pretty reasonable scientific evidence which suggests that there is a very good chance that storms will become stronger” he said. “The question is whether Harvey can be a wake-up call or whether it will just go back to business as usual.”
Arkema shares fell 0.1% to 92.40 euros in Paris trading on Monday, taking losses to 0.7% since the day before the Texas plant fire started, and giving a market value of 7 billion euros (US$8.3 billion). The site generates 0.4% of overall annual sales, the company has said.
By Ania Nussbaum