Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Corpus Christi on Friday, August 25. By Sunday morning, as torrential rains continued to pour down on the Houston area in one of the worst storms ever to hit the United States, a small crew hunkered down at the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas knew they had problems.
They did not yet know that they would have to abandon the plant as flood waters rose to almost seven feet, or that days after that, trailers containing chemicals would ignite into a chemical fire, spewing noxious smoke and exposing residents and emergency personnel to fumes. At least 15 police and emergency responders were rushed to the hospital, gasping and vomiting after breathing in smoke.
Now a logbook from the plant, turned over to the Environmental Protection Agency and then obtained by BuzzFeed News, paints a gripping picture of worsening conditions: overflowing wastewater tanks, failing power systems, toilets that stopped working, and even a snake, washed in by rising waters. Then finally: “extraction” of the crew by boat. And days later, blasts and foul, frightening smoke.
In the wake of the fires, residents and first responders alleged that Arkema did not adequately prepare for the hurricane or warn residents of the dangers of the chemicals it had abandoned in trailers that eventually lost refrigeration. The Harris County District Attorney’s office has opened a criminal investigation into what happened. Residents and first responders have filed lawsuits, and the Texas environmental regulator and the Chemical Safety Board are both probing the events.
Environmentalists say the incident is an example of the dangers posed by relaxing environmental regulations. Arkema, a billion-dollar corporation headquartered in France, has said in public statements that unprecedented flooding of the site from a unique storm overwhelmed the plant’s existing preparation for the event. In the logbook, plant managers describe the “heroic” but ultimately futile efforts of the crew to protect the volatile compounds from floodwaters.
Photos included in the log show a forklift driving through the a foot of water outside the facility, and flooding in the parking lot.
“It’s been a long, tough night at the Crosby facility,” the plant manager wrote on Sunday at 9:37 a.m., noting that the plant had been hit with more than 20 inches of rain in the previous 24 hours. The entry details a number of issues, including that phone service had gone down. “This appears to be a long term deployment for the ride out crew.”
By afternoon, conditions had worsened. At 4:39 p.m., the manager wrote that only one freezer building still had electrical power and that “the main power transformers for the site are about a foot or so from taking on water.”
By Monday morning, things were more dire still. “Another difficult night,” the plant manager wrote at 4:17 a.m. Overnight, the transformers had failed, leaving the plant without electrical power.
The plant manufactured “organic peroxides,” chemicals used to make plastics, and some of these reactive materials had to be stored below 20 degrees Fahrenheit to keep from catching fire. Expecting that rising water would cut off refrigeration, crews had begun moving the chemicals out of one of the freezer buildings, relying on forklifts to drive through the flooded site to refrigerated trailers used to transport the materials. But even as the move was happening, more units were losing their cooling capacity.
By Monday afternoon, buildings began taking in water, and the generators that provided backup power also began flooding and shutting down. Vehicles broke down in the water.
On Tuesday at 7 a.m., as the flood waters had continued to rise, the plant manager wrote that they had “consulted with Crisis Team and determined that it was time to arrange extraction.”
The last entry notes that the team had planned a reconnaissance trip to check on the trailers that contained the chemicals at risk of explosion, but the rescue team arrived and insisted that the crew leave. Arkema would later tell the EPA that stormwater on the property had reached seven feet, submerging a six-foot fence topped by barbed wire. The crew, evacuated by boat, simply cruised over the barricade.
Over the next three days, the chemicals that the crew had packed into trailers warmed and caught fire, leading to at least three blasts at the empty plant.
Arkema’s documents submitted to the EPA describe the strategy used to blow up the remaining products on site, in a bid to head off additional explosions.
On Sunday, with a clear sky overhead, a team that included local first responders returned to the plant and placed a controlled explosive, called a “charge,” on each of the six remaining trailers. The idea was that one charge would detonate remotely, and the others would go off in succession.
According to paperwork filed by the company to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that burn resulted in the release of 33,600 pounds of emissions.
Federal investigators from the Chemical Safety Board arrived three days later to examine the site, interview company employees, and launch a months-long investigation of the event.
In its first update to reporters on Wednesday, the CSB provided a timeline of events at the factory during the storm, presented as an animated video. The agency’s findings seem to broadly support the entries logged by the crew at the plant.
“The facility was not prepared for such heavy rainfall,” CSB chairperson Vanessa Sutherland told reporters at a press conference.
Among the investigators’ observations so far is that Arkema’s backup generators were raised only two feet above ground, and even three feet of water would shut them down.
She said that part of the agency’s recommendations in the final report would be that Gulf coast plants re-assess their emergency response plans to account for more frequent and more intense weather events.
“Plan and plan again,” she said. “Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by thinking it can’t or won’t happen here.”
CSB lead investigator Mark Wingard declined to comment on the adequacy of Arkema’s response to the emergency. “It’s too early to make that kind of characterization,” Winguard said to reporters. The agency hopes to complete its report before June 2018.
The Harris County District Attorney’s office has also opened a criminal investigation, according to a spokesperson, and has subpoenaed a great deal of material.
“Companies should be on notice that we care when they pollute our air, our water, our environment,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said. "We are looking into exactly what happened at the plant.”