What happened in Crosby, Texas?

Matt Dempsey, a data scientist based in Houston, describes the events in Crosby leading up to a chemical plant explosion caused by Hurricane Harvey floodwaters.

A chemical fire engulfs a section of an Arkema-owned plant, which was crippled by Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Adrees Latif / Reuters
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On the heels of Hurricane Harvey, an Arkema chemical plant outside of Houston, Texas flooded, lost power, then exploded. Workers scrambled overnight to find a way to refrigerate their product, which is flammable at room temperature.

After thick smoke plumes, tall orange fires and two explosions, the sheriff deputy drew a 1.5-mile evacuation zone around the plant. Homeowners living three miles from the blasts reported “white, tar-like substances” and “black tar balls” in their yards, outside of the evacuation zone.

A statement from Arkema said their backup generators fueling refrigeration were swallowed by Harvey floodwaters.

Matt Dempsey, a data scientist from Houston, describes the events in Crosby in the following audio file.

Audio Transcript

Arkema is an organic peroxides company. They make organic peroxides, so the organic peroxides they had on site were in tens of thousands of jugs and containers. So they get hit with six feet of water. The main power goes out, as expected. The backup generators got inundated by the water, so those all failed. So then they were like, “We’re in deep trouble.” So in the middle of the night, with 12 workers, they moved tens of thousands of those containers into freezer tractor-trailer trucks. They get the stuff in there, then the freezer trucks start failing. The company then put out a press conference and told the public that there’s no way they could prevent a pyrotic explosion at this point.

On Sunday, the company said that in coordination with government officials, they decided that the best thing for them to do was to do a controlled burn of the rest of the material. A week later I think, we got the first lawsuit from first responders who got sick. 23 first responders were sent to the hospital. The EMTs who arrived who helped the sheriff deputy first got sick right around the border of the one and a half mile evacuation zone got sick farther away than the evacuation zone promoted.

A vapor cloud hit their cars while they were driving over there. So they started vomiting and getting dizzy before they reached the sheriff deputy. According to them, this went on beyond the mile-and-a-half evacuation zone. [Arkema] could have taken that stuff and shipped it to facilities they have up north. Harvey was forecasted for days before Harvey came.

“You know, there’s a million different things they could have done to prevent this. The company goes out of their way to say there’s nothing we could have done, no one could have anticipated the —blah blah blah. That’s nonsense.”

They could have loaded all their stuff up and moved it out before the storm hit. They could have moved their stores to other safer places. They could have elevated their generators and make sure they’re higher up. The Texas medical center got flooded during Tropical Storm Allison a number of years ago, and they lost all their power. And what they did was [make] sure their generators were highly generated so you didn’t have to worry about your backup generators getting inundated by floodwaters.

For this storm, [the] medical center maintained power the whole time. Experts I talked to said that they can’t understand how any company, after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, would not think to elevate their generators. You know, there’s a million different things they could have done to prevent this. The company goes out of their way to say there’s nothing we could have done, no one could have anticipated the — blah blah blah. That’s nonsense.

There’s absolutely people who anticipated storms like this. If Hurricane Harvey had hit Houston first instead of Port Aransas or Rockport or the Corpus Christi area, there could have been storm surges of 15 to 25 feet. So don’t tell me no one could have anticipated this. We were here. We live here. So I’m telling you, people were talking about this [being] a major flooding event, for days before Harvey happened. Lots of people were talking about this. They had ample time to get their material onto trucks and move it out, or destroy their material if they thought that was the better way to go.

But they chose to stay open as long as they could, and then shut down at the last possible moment [and] save their product. “We’ll just keep it cool, that’s the best way to do this. We’ll just keep it cool. What’s the worst thing that could happen?” And then, instead, the consequence was a bunch of first responders get sick, that white, tar-like substances are on people’s roofs outside of the evacuation zone. People saw black tar balls outside on their back yard, outside of the evacuation zone.

All these people had to get taken out of their homes because of Arkema’s mistake. People got hurt because of Arkema’s mistake. Arkema’s company line the entire time is, “No one could have anticipated this; there’s nothing we could have done.” Well, if that’s the case, then why did the organic peroxides company two miles down the street not have these problems?

Are you saying they didn’t get as big a flood as you? What did they do? Obviously, some companies handled this better than others. Was it because their flooding was as bad as Arkema’s? Maybe. The idea that this was unpreventable for Arkema — no — absolutely, it was preventable. The company wants people think it was preventable. They had one point of failure. Their one point of failure was, “If we can’t keep things cool, it’s gonna explode.”

There’s a strong, strong message being sent out by the EPA. Across the board, it’s ‘everything’s fine, there’s nothing to see here.’ But they have provided no information to back that line up.

The Region 6 coordinator at the EPA used to be the PIO. He’s a press guy. He’s running Region 6. He’s running the EPA’s region for the petrochemical capital of the country. They’re trying to say that they’ve tested the water and the soil and the air around these Superfund sites and everything’s cool — that we didn’t detect anything — well, what did you test for? And they were like, “We’ll get back to you on that.”

What do you mean you’ll get back to me? How do you not know that off the top of your head? How do you not have that on the top of your desk a list of here’s what we tested for, here’s what the results were, everything’s fine. We don’t know what they tested for all of these other Superfund sites. We don’t what they tested for. We don’t have the test results for those EPA Superfund sites.

They’re saying it’s fine, but we don’t know what means “fine.” What is their definition of fine? There’s a strong, strong message being sent out by the EPA. Across the board, it’s “everything’s fine, there’s nothing to see here.” But they have provided no information to back that line up. Most of these companies are out of compliance with the Clean Air Act anyways, so it’s like, take anything they say with a grain of salt.

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