Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 1, 2017.

In Harm's Way

Following Harvey’s impact on the Gulf Coast chemical industry, experts point to codes like NFPA 400 as potentially valuable tools to help protect facilities against threats posed by extreme weather

BY ANGELO VERZONI

The flooding from Hurricane Harvey was bad for many residents of Crosby, Texas, about 25 miles northeast of Houston. Then came another calamity: residents living within a mile-and-a-half radius of the Arkema chemical manufacturing plant located in the town were told to leave their homes before fires at the facility began spewing noxious smoke. Fear and uncertainty marked the early days of the incident. “[The company] made it sound like it was blowing up,” one evacuee told a local radio station.

According to the Washington Post, Arkema, a French company that manufactures organic peroxides at the Crosby site, anticipated main power loss during the storm and moved its chemicals, which need to be cooled to remain stable, to containers refrigerated by diesel-powered generators. But when six-foot floodwaters washed over the site, the generators failed, too. The containers began warming, and on August 31, about a week after Harvey first made landfall, the chemicals began to spontaneously combust. Arkema North America CEO Richard Rowe conceded that the weather conditions caught the company off-guard. “I apologize, we apologize,” he said, according to media accounts. “No one anticipated we’d be looking at a site with six feet of water on it.”

Questions remain, including details of procedures that were in place to address flooding at the plant. Two lawsuits have been filed against Arkema—one by police officers and emergency medical technicians, who say they suffered respiratory irritation as a result of the fires, and another by Harris County, which includes Crosby and Houston, alleging Arkema should have been more proactive in addressing the incident. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is currently investigating the incident.

The Arkema incident speaks to a larger problem illustrated by Harvey: much of the United States’ chemical industry is concentrated along the Gulf Coast, directly in the path of some of nature’s most powerful and destructive storms. Experts point out that codes like NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code, could be amended to better address these natural hazards and help the industry protect itself against these threats, thereby preventing future incidents like Arkema.

DOZENS OF FAILURES

Arkema was far from the only chemical industry failure to occur during Harvey, which isn’t surprising considering petroleum runs through the veins of Houston. Major oil companies like Shell and Phillips 66 call the city home.

An Associated Press analysis of pollution reports submitted to state and federal regulators found that more than two dozen petrochemical storage tanks ruptured or failed when Harvey hit the Texas coast, spilling at least 145,000 gallons of fuel and releasing toxins into the air. Residents told media that the pollution was palpable. “You start to get headaches, your eyes start itching, your throat gets scratchy,” one Houston resident told The Guardian. Twitter users complained of an “unbearable” chemical smell lingering over parts of Houston.

Based on media reports alone, there was a spike in incidents involving the chemical industry during Harvey compared to floods and other weather events the area has seen in the past 10 or 15 years, said Ed Cope, a fire protection engineer from Houston. Cope runs a code consulting business that deals primarily with hazardous materials and serves on the technical committee for NFPA 400. “It seems to be there was more of an impact on the chemical and gas industry [during Harvey],” he said. “There’s been a lot of stuff in the news about releases from the plants, about spills from bulk tanks, about Superfund sites that were impacted by the flooding and are being monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s the sort of stuff you didn’t hear in the news during previous floods.”

Then again, nothing about Harvey was regular. The storm dumped an unprecedented 50-plus inches of rain on parts of Houston. During Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans in 2005, maximum rainfall barely exceeded 17 inches. “Do we plan for storms and hurricanes? Absolutely,” Ron Whitmire, an executive at a Houston-based oil company told AP. “But nobody plans for 50-plus inches of rain.” The unprecedented nature of the storm was reflected in the number of chemical industry failures.

Aerial view of the flooded plant of French chemical maker Arkema SA

The flooded plant of French chemical maker, Arkema SA, which produces organic peroxides, is seen after fires were reporter at the facility after Hurricane Harvey passed in Crosby, Texas. Photograph: Reuters/Adrees Latif

That’s not to say there weren’t a few silver linings. Despite the lawsuits and CSB investigation, the Arkema incident demonstrated effective communication between industry officials, first responders, and the public, as outlined by NFPA 400, said Guy Colonna, NFPA’s division director of Technical Services. Arkema made it abundantly clear what would happen before things started going wrong and urged people to respect a mile-and-a-half evacuation zone. “Instead of sitting on their hands, they said, ‘This is what we’re anticipating will happen, the community needs to figure out an evacuation strategy,’ and to the fire department, they said, ‘When our facility starts burning, don’t go to it, let it burn,’” said Colonna.

While effective communication may have prevented deaths, the company still suffered immense property loss and angered residents who live nearby. Whether Arkema had planned specifically for hurricane-related flooding and the subsequent power loss and combustion of their products is unclear.

NFPA 400 requires backup power be provided for materials that require temperature control, like the organic peroxides made at the Arkema plant. It also says that fire risk control analyses for industrial processes “shall consider local conditions and exposure to floods, earthquakes, and severe weather,” said Robert James, global inspection leader for UL’s Building, Fire, Life Safety, and Security Industries and chair of the NFPA 400 technical committee. “It currently requires the owner … to [account for] these risks when designing and protecting hazardous materials.”

BUILDING ON THE CODE

Still, experts say building on the language pertaining to extreme weather in NFPA 400 might be a step worth pursuing, especially since so many oil refineries and other chemical or petrochemical facilities are located in states prone to hurricanes.

“I think it’s something that needs to be looked at,” Cope said of an expansion of the language. “Most chemical facilities I believe do evaluate these hazards and consider design issues such as separation, elevations, structural design, containment, diking, and emergency power along with emergency procedures such as isolation, relocation, evacuation, and process planning. The question in my mind is, are they planning for a severe enough event and should the codes play any role in determining the severity of the event to consider?”

Colonna said that, while the code contains elements that address some aspects of these hazards, he doesn’t consider it comprehensive, and other aspects of the code might be obscure and not well-enforced. “Hopefully, some lessons learned can come from these recent storms, including Harvey, and guide the formulation of some more specific steps,” Colonna said.

It’s not just NFPA 400. Cope said other national and international codes specific to the chemical industry lack details when it comes to addressing extreme weather. At the same time, he raised questions about the effectiveness of any addition to code language, especially as it would relate to existing facilities situated in harm’s way. “Short of picking up the facility and moving it, it’s difficult to really design the facility to account for the risk,” Cope said. “In some cases, where you’re dealing with bulk storage or bulk processing units, it’s almost impossible to raise them the 15 or 20 feet you might need in order to account for the biggest risk, which would be potential storm surge.”

Aerial photo of rainwater from Hurricane Harvey surrounding oil refinery storage tanks

Rainwater from Hurricane Harvey surrounds oil refinery storage tanks in Texas City, Texas. Photograph: Getty Images

James, who also agreed extreme weather-related language can be expanded in the code, said the issue will appear on a future NFPA 400 technical committee meeting agenda.

In the meantime, other NFPA codes and standards, while not specific to the chemical industry, can still be used to mitigate the damage caused by extreme weather to that industry.

For example, NFPA 1600, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity/Continuity of Operations Programs, is unique in that it’s the only standard in the world that integrates emergency management with business continuity, or the effort to keep business operations running normally in the face of disasters. It outlines measures such as moving operations off-site if possible when a hurricane or other disaster strikes. The importance of the business continuity aspect of NFPA 1600 was on display during Harvey, as its impact on the chemical industry was felt far beyond Houston. The petrochemical industry is so prominent in the state of Texas that the storm halted roughly 20 percent of U.S. oil refining capacity, according to media reports, which sent gas prices soaring at pumps nationwide.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Aaron M. Sprecher via AP