Houston — The North American arm of French petrochemical producer Arkema is continuing work to resume operations at a Texas organic peroxides complex shut since it was swamped by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, a spokeswoman said Oct. 2.
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Spokeswoman Janet Smith said the company's Crosby plant northwest of Houston "has continued to employ a full staff, and has also kept many others busy, working to repair damage caused by deep flooding and respond to recommendations of the" Chemical Safety Board.
Arkema would restart the site's logistics platform so it can "serve as a depot" to support US Gulf Coast customers, though timing of that resumption "depends on completion of some final steps," Smith said in an email.
Production restarts are on hold in order to complete "additional process safety work" which was slowed to adhere to safety protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic, "which has substantially reduced demand."
The Crosby site took on more than six feet of water when Harvey drowned the Texas Gulf Coast in 2017, dumping unprecedented amounts of rainfall that surpassed 60 inches over three days in some areas.
Arkema produced organic peroxides at the site, which are used as a catalyst in production of plastic resins, such as construction staple polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, polyethylene and polypropylene.
The Crosby site is one of 34 Arkema manufacturing facilities in the US, including two other plants that have organic peroxides production.
Volatile chemicals ignite when allowed to warm up
Organic peroxides must be refrigerated to remain stable, and will ignite if allowed to warm up. When Harvey swamped the Crosby site, workers moved peroxides from generator-powered refrigerated warehouses as rising water threatened electrical equipment to refrigerated trailers also powered by generators. Floodwaters overwhelmed generators and forklifts used to move the pallets, and workers moved containers by hand.
Emergency management officials ordered those workers to evacuate when water levels reached six feet, and orders residents within a 1.5-mile radius to evacuate.
With no refrigeration, the peroxides warmed, decomposed, exploded and burned.
Within two days, a Houston Police bomb squad ignited the rest, rather than wait for them to burn on their own.The site has been shut ever since.
Arkema has worked with regulators for permits to revamp and replace structures at the Crosby complex aimed at addressing worst-case flood risks.
The CSB concluded in 2018 that Arkema had multiple safety steps in place before Harvey hit, but none anticipated the storm's unprecedented rainfall. The CSB said Arkema had sufficient safeguards for a 500-year flooding event, but Harvey was a one-in-1,000 year event.
Shortly after the CSB issued its findings, a Harris County grand jury handed up the first of two indictments against the company and three executives on charges stemming from emissions from the fires and injuries to first responders who entered those clouds without protective equipment.
On Oct. 1, a Texas judge dismissed the last of those charges, ruling that prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to prove wrongdoing. Visiting Judge Belinda Hill had previously dismissed charges against two of the individuals, once at the request of prosecutors who determined they lacked adequate proof.
The trial began in March, was suspended for six months because of coronavirus pandemic-related safety protocols and resumed in September.