WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Chemical Plant Fire Raises Environmental Concerns In Wake Of Harvey

Aug 31, 2017
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

People north of Houston woke up today to reports of explosions and a fire at a chemical plant that was flooded by Harvey. The plant is owned by the company Arkema. Company officials are warning of more fires. With us now to talk about this is NPR science editor Geoff Brumfiel. Hello there.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there.

MCEVERS: So what happened at the Arkema plant?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the chemicals that burned are called organic peroxides. They're used to make plastic. And they're very reactive. They have to be kept cool. So after the flooding, the cooling systems failed, and the temperature rose. A tractor trailer containing some of these chemicals basically went up in smoke. Now, there are more trailers on the site, and the company says that means there's going to be more fires to come.

MCEVERS: There seems to be some confusion about how dangerous the smoke from these fires is. Let's listen to a press conference earlier today. First Bob Royall of the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office made it sound like this was just regular smoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BOB ROYALL: You don't want to stand in smoke, do you? The sheriff says it's like a camp fire.

MCEVERS: Like a camp fire - but then at that same press conference, Arkema executive Rich Rennard seemed a little less sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RICHARD RENNARD: I mean this - the smoke is noxious. I don't - its toxicity is - yeah, it's a relative thing.

MCEVERS: Toxicity is a relative thing, Geoff. What did you make of that?

BRUMFIEL: Well, we've been doing some checking on the science desk. And I mean I think what we can say at this point is organic peroxides are not the most dangerous things in the world.

MCEVERS: OK.

BRUMFIEL: They are used in some household products like acne cream and toothpaste. In the pure form, the biggest danger is fire. And you know, that's what we've seen. And obviously fires make smoke, and so they're right to say the smoke can cause irritation. But nobody's quite sure what else might be, you know, coming out of these fires.

I mean it's worth saying that this is not a controlled chemical reaction. There could be byproducts from the quantities of chemicals involved. There could be byproducts from the chemicals reacting with other things in the trailers. The EPA is actually sending down an airborne chemical sensing system so that they can have a look at what comes out of these fires. And an evacuation order remains in effect. Nobody should go within 1.5 miles of the plant. No residents should return home.

MCEVERS: Wow. I mean considering what this plant is, shouldn't the company have been prepared for a disaster like this and considering where it is?

BRUMFIEL: Well, they should have, and they thought they were. I mean, you know, they have backup generators, backup systems. But they just weren't prepared for this amount of water. I mean as a last resort, the workers had to load these chemicals into these trailers and drive them off to a corner of the facility where they thought they'd be safe. And then the workers themselves had to be evacuated by boat. That's how bad things got. From that point on, these chemicals were basically just a ticking time bomb. Rich Rennard, that Arkema executive we heard from earlier, was clearly frustrated by what's happened here.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RENNARD: Well, we had generators. We had backup generators. We bought backup backup generators. So I'm not sure what much more we could have done.

BRUMFIEL: I guarantee you, though, once these fires go out, there will be plenty of people looking into what more they could have done and what more Arkema should have done.

MCEVERS: Let's talk about, you know, the whole area. I mean the Gulf Coast has tons of petrochemical plants and refineries. Has Harvey caused other problems?

BRUMFIEL: Well, Arkema is definitely the most dramatic case we've seen so far, but there have been facilities shut down all along the coast. In that previous report, we heard about Port Arthur. The world's largest refinery is up there, and it shut down. And there are old sites, too. I mean Houston is home to 16 Superfund sites that have toxic materials in the soil and on the site. So I think that, you know, it's likely as the floodwaters recede, there may be problems. And environmental groups are going to be looking for spills and leaks and other problems as well.

MCEVERS: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.