Hurricane Harvey: How Pruitt and Abbott helped burning Texas chemical plant break the rules
It’s one of those stories we know all too well. A company prone to spreading environmental hazards – in this case, the global chemical giant Arkema – also spreads cash to politicians. It gets cited – and modestly fined – for violating protective rules it has fought to keep from being imposed. The piddly fines don’t deter it from keeping on doing what it was doing, and along comes a disaster – in this case, Hurricane Harvey – that “nobody could have foreseen.”
Arkema operates in 50 countries, manufacturing a wide array of industrial chemicals. The company has six production plants in Texas, including one in Crosby, about 25 miles northeast of Houston. Flooding as a result of Hurricane Harvey compromised the plant, causing two explosions Wednesday, and fires from chemical interactions sent smoke high above the facility on Thursday.
The company has reported those fires are now out, but there are other tanks full of the same chemicals with the same problems, and they’re likely to go up at any moment.
UPDATE: They did.
— NBC Nightly News (@NBCNightlyNews) September 1, 2017
Despite worries about toxic emissions from those fires, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that it has detected none. Officially then, there’s no reason for concern that the situation will cause immediate harm to people in the area. Believe that if you wish.
Who are those people? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 1,278 households exist within a five-mile radius of the plant, 909 of whom are below the poverty line. The EPA estimates that about 4,000 people live within five miles of the plant. “Expendables”, in the view of too many of the powers-that-be.
How to purchase the power-that-be
Arkema, on the other hand, gets treated as a model citizen, no matter what they do. That includes $8.7 million in subsidies from the state’s taxpayers. And for 10 violations earlier this year—eight of them serious—the federal government fined it $90,000. In 2016, the company earned a record profit of $1.4 billion from its worldwide operations.
While Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has given chemical companies legal cover to hide the locations of their EPA-regulated chemicals, the Associated Press reports that the imperiled Arkema facility houses large amounts of toxic sulfur dioxide and flammable methylpropen, which required Arkema to submit a risk management plan to the agency—and which would have subjected the company to the strengthened safety rules.
However, those rules—which would have taken effect on March 14—were blocked by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma Attorney General demanded the rule be withdrawn. The move was a big win for the chemical industry that has spent more than $100 million supporting federal lawmakers since 2008. Among those who have received more than $100,000 from the industry are powerful Texas lawmakers including Sen. John Cornyn (R), Rep. Joe Barton (R), Rep. Pete Olson (R), Rep. Gene Green (D), Rep. Pete Sessions (R) and Rep. Kevin Brady (R).
That’s about $100,000+ to six members of the Senate and House, and $90,000 for 10 violations of the rules that could actually kill people.
Nobody could have foreseen…
Kelly Weill and Stephen Paulsen at the Daily Beast provided some more detail of those violations. The company claimed it had done everything it could to prevent the fires. But:
[P]eople living within a 1.5-mile mandatory evacuation zone didn’t know what chemicals were stored at the plant, thanks to a 2014 decision by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, which classified once-public reports on hazardous chemicals. Abbott is now governor.
Arkema and its Crosby facility have racked up over a dozen violations and “informal enforcement actions” over safety and environmental problems over the past five years, according to records from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The latest OSHA case closed in May 2017 and cost Arkema an initial penalty of more than $100,000. Eight of the ten violations fall under the category of “process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals,” meaning Arkema was breaking rules meant to prevent the “catastrophic releases of toxic, reactive, flammable, or explosive chemicals,” according to the OSHA appendix of regulations.
Who needs a Chemical Safety Board?
Meanwhile, the Trump regime would like to completely eliminate the small agency that has been sent to investigate the situation at Arkema—the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
With a bare-bones budget of $11 million and just 40 staffers, the independent agency has run more than 130 investigations in its nearly two decades in existence. One of those took it to the Gulf of Mexico for the Deepwater Horizon disaster:
It comes in to determine what happened after accidents and disasters — much like the National Transportation Safety Board, said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning with the Environmental Defense Fund.
“Would we ever do away with that group that looks at aircraft accidents after they’ve occurred, or train accidents after they’ve occurred, the NTSB?” asked Holstein. “No. So why would we be getting rid of the Chemical Safety Board, which does the same thing?”
Sadly, the why is all too obvious.
(Originally appeared at DailyKos. Image via ABC screenshot.)