By Jacinta Conrad, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, University of Houston
The two explosions in Crosby, Texas, on August 29, 2017 weren’t loud or massive – just gentle pops of sound. Even such small pops, however, were sufficient to disperse chemicals involved in the manufacture of organic peroxides into the air. First responders at the scene reported respiratory irritation and fell ill after breathing the smoke seen at the perimeter of the plant site.
The explosion at the Arkema plant in Crosby was a result of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, one of the costliest hurricanes to hit the mainland United States. The plant lost electricity early in the storm, leading to the shutdown of refrigeration systems. After backup power generators also failed, volatile peroxides – used in the creation of plastics for a wide range of consumer products – heated up and became combustible. Result: explosions. Over several days, 500,000 pounds of organic peroxides in nine trailers burned at the plant.
Hurricane Harvey hit Houston hard last year, and the Arkema explosion was only one incident. While much of the world’s attention was focused on the breathtaking rescues carried out by first responders and volunteers, chemical engineers in and near Texas also thought – with great concern — of the many chemical plants located around Houston. Were plants and facilities designed to handle challenges posed by severe flooding? Were necessary safety processes in place to ensure that operations could be safely halted?
Other recent high-profile incidents in Texas – most prominently, the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in 2013, which caused 15 deaths and over 260 injuries – have reinforced the idea that safety must be a central focus of the chemical industry. Competition, however, makes it difficult to share best practices across companies. In addition, changes to improve safety are often reactive – made in response to catastrophic incidents such as those at the Arkema or West Fertilizer plants and focused on minimizing consequences after damage.
The U. S. Chemical Safety Board (USCSB) has a critical role to play in surmounting these challenges. Inspired by its vision of “a nation safe from chemical disasters,” the USCSB investigates industrial accidents involving chemicals that are focused on identifying the root cause. Its board members, who have significant experience and expertise in one or more of chemistry, engineering and hazard management, use the information collected from the investigations to make safety recommendations designed to reduce the risk or consequences of accidents. Importantly, the nonpartisan USCSB does not regulate or fund chemical safety. Instead, the Chemical Safety Board acts as an independent, objective party in assessing chemical accidents and recommending better practices.
Thus it functions analogously to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates accidents in transportation. The NTSB does not regulate or fund transportation. Nonetheless, its recommendations have greatly improved transportation safety over its 51 years – including from anti-collision technologies in aviation and rail to airbag and brake light improvements on automobiles. These advances have saved lives by identifying ways to make industry better.
The history of the USCSB is shorter – it was started in 1998 – but it has still played an important role in improving safety in the chemical industry. As one example, its 19 recommendations after the West Fertilizer explosion and fire have already led to improvements in hazardous materials training for firefighters across multiple delivery platforms. Likewise, its 26 recommendations after the explosion at BP America’s Texas City refinery in 2005 led to changes in practices sanctioned by key professional organizations and spurred the development of two new performance indicator standards for process safety by the American National Standards Institute. The Chemical Safety Board’s investigation into the Arkema incident is ongoing.
Unfortunately, the 2019 budget proposed by the Trump administration zeros out funding for the USCSB. Its requested fiscal-year funding, $12 million, is modest for a government agency. Likewise, the 2018 budget also proposed to defund the USCSB. This sustained effort reflects an ongoing de-emphasis on chemical safety – as a second example, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has indefinitely delayed bans on the use of three hazardous chemicals, shown to be toxic to human health.
Chemical production is an essential component of modern society. This does not mean that there is not room to improve practices in manufacturing, storing, and shipping chemicals, and in ensuring the safety of those who work in or live near chemical plants. The vantage of an independent group is crucial for identifying those aspects that can and should be improved.
Defunding the USCSB, which provides this indispensable independent perspective, is likely to hinder efforts to identify the causes of chemical accidents – especially in low-regulation locales. Moreover, it is also likely to worsen our ability to respond in previously unforeseen events, such as the heavy flooding of Harvey, that may be exacerbated by climate change. Finally, it is likely to cost lives in future incidents.
Jacinta Conrad is an Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Houston, where she holds an Ernest J. and Barbara M. Henley chaired professorship. Her research explores the fundamental science underlying the transport of micro- and nanoscale particles, viruses, and bacteria, with energy-related applications in sustainable materials processing and in bioremediation. She is the co-PI of the NSF-sponsored Research Experiences for Undergraduates Site: Materials for Sustainability in Energy and Manufacturing, involving engineering faculty working in sustainability across four departments. At UH, Jaci teaches classes on engineering mathematics, fluid mechanics, and heat and mass transport. She received an S. B. in Mathematics from the University of Chicago and an M. A. and Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard University.