Safety concerns raised about Arkema Crosby

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

US refineries remain closed

ARKEMA’S organic peroxide plant in Crosby, which has already suffered reported explosions and a subsequent fire following Hurricane Harvey, has a history of safety failings, it has emerged.

Floods caused by the hurricane cut power to the Crosby plant, and then flooded the back-up generators, causing the failure of the cooling systems for the organic peroxides, which undergo self-decomposition and catch fire when not kept cool. The plant’s back-up nitrogen-cooled trailers then also failed, causing the organic peroxides to reach dangerous temperatures. One storage trailer caught fire on 31 August, reportedly after two explosions, although Arkema said that the explosions were more likely to be from pressure relief valves. A sheriff’s deputy was taken to hospital for smoke inhalation while 14 other officers also attended hospital. In its most recent update, the French firm said that ongoing temperature monitoring has shown that the remaining trailers are likely to catch fire soon. A 2.4 km exclusion zone around the plant remains in place.

The situation drew immediate criticism from safety experts, which had previously warned of the risks. Sam Mannan, a safety expert at Texas A&M University, told Associated Press that Arkema’s risk management plan for the Crosby site did not address how it would deal with a power or cooling failure or flooding. A 2016 study carried out by Mannan and his team ranked the Crosby plant among the 70 plants most likely to cause harm in the Greater Houston area.

The Crosby site’s most recent troubles came in February, when Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Arkema US$108,000 (later reduced to US$92,000) for ten serious safety failings found during a site inspection.. “Serious” failings are those likely to cause death or serious physical harm. AP says that it has seen evidence to suggest that Arkema kept using equipment when safety systems had failed, and did not inspect or test in the recommended way. Employees were not kept up to date with training.

According to AP, Arkema has additionally been fined multiple times over the past decade for safety and environmental failings at the plant – by the Texas environmental commission, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The largest fine of US$20,000 came in December 2011, for failing to keep thermal oxidisers at the correct temperatures.

Vanessa Allen Sutherland, chair of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) announced that the agency has initiated an investigation into the Arkema Crosby explosions. Investigators will not be on site, however, until the emergency response is completed and the site is deemed safe.

Commenting on the incident, Andrea Sella, professor of inorganic chemistry at UCL, said: “A complicating factor here, as has been observed many times over the past few years, is urban sprawl gradually engulfing chemical plants. Because accidents are unusual, planners can come to underestimate the severity of what are likely to be quite rare events. It is worth noting in this context that the Trump Administration intends to make a 30% cut in the EPA’s budget and has already slashed funding to the CSB, two of the key regulatory agencies whose responsibility it is to minimise and understand chemical risks.”

Refinery closures

Many Gulf Coast refineries are reported to be closed as a result of Hurricane Harvey, reportedly around a quarter of US capacity. These include Saudi Aramco’s Motiva Port Arthur refinery, the largest in the region with a capacity of 603,000 bbl/d, Exxon Mobil’s 362,000 bbl/d Beaumont refinery and its Baytown complex, Marathon’s Galveston Bay refinery, Total’s Port Arthur refinery, and Valero’s Port Arthur refinery. 

Investment bank Goldman Sachs estimates that up to 4.5m bbl/d of Gulf Coast refining capacity is currently out of action. Analysts have warned that refining capacity will be lowered for several months, but that the full effects will not be known for a while until companies have fully assessed the situation.

Reuters reports that vehicle fuel prices are rising, as supplies dry up due to refinery and pipeline closures. The US emergency reserve has released 500,000 bbl of crude to refineries still currently running.

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

Senior reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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