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Residents Evacuated After Chemical Plant Explosion Near Houston

by Countable | 8.31.17

What’s the story?

Explosions and fires at a chemical plant 25 miles northeast of Houston prompted evacuations of a 1.5 mile radius of the site. Authorities and company officials insist the volatile compounds being released are non-toxic, though an EPA study has stated that the organic peroxides created at the plant are eye and throat irritants and may cause liver damage.

The incident, combined with the one million pounds of toxic chemicals that were released into the air via three other chemical plants in the area in recent days raises serious questions about oversight, regulations, and disaster preparedness.

Why does it matter?

Authorities began issuing warnings Tuesday night, in fear that the cooling systems that prevent combustion of the materials would fail. About 200 residents living within a 1.5 mile radius of the plant were mandatorily evacuated on Wednesday.

The flooding at the Arkema plant forced all but 11 employees, tasked with monitoring the situation, to evacuate the plant. By Thursday in the early morning all employees had been evacuated and local fire officials reported noxious black smoke and what sounded to be small explosions coming from the plant.

The water surrounding the plant is still too high to approach the plant to assess the situation directly. FEMA has maintained that overflights by chemical-detecting aircraft, however, showed the smoke did not contain "concerning" levels of hazardous materials, according to the Washington Post.

Company officials have stated that the situation is still quite serious. At a press conference, Richard Rennard, of Arkema Group, said, "That's why we want people to respect [the] radius. It's not over. This is very serious and we know that."

The Associated Press reports the company is required to submit "worst-case scenario" plans to the EPA because of the toxic compounds present on the site.

According to a 2014 filing, the company stated that at worst 1.1 million residents could be affected over 23 miles. The company considered the scenario highly unlikely because it would require all systems at the plant to fail and strong winds to blow directly towards Houston.

Currently, power is down at the plant and it is unclear when it will come back, but as of now all systems have not failed. Additionally, it is unclear how long the chemicals at the plant can be safely stored in this current state.

In February the company was fined nearly $110,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for ‘serious’ safety violations, which could have resulted in serious injury or death. The fine was later reduced to just over $90,000.

What can you do?

Chemicals are an essential aspect of our modern life, and chemical plants are not going away. So, what do we do to protect the public in the event of enormous disasters like Hurricane Harvey? Is there anything we can do? Should Congress direct the EPA to require companies, particularly in areas like the Gulf Coast, to prepare for disasters of the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey? Would that level of regulation kill industry and strangle the economy?

Use the Take Action button to tell your reps what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: myrecordjournal.com / Creative Commons)

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