By Alex Stuckey
CROSBY — By the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 29, the skeleton crew at Arkema’s chemical plant knew it was time to go.
Flooding from Hurricane Harvey had caused the plant to lose power. Thousands of gallons of chemical-laden water had spilled into the floodwaters. Soon, the company’s stash of volatile organic peroxides would warm enough to produce fires so noxious that first responders vomited at the scene. The last of Arkema’s workers evacuated, floating over a 6-foot chain-link fence in a small boat.
A half-mile to the northwest, Diane and Nolan Glover knew none of this. Then the National Guard showed up on Tuesday afternoon, ordering them to evacuate.
The retired couple, both in their 60s, were busy trying to protect their belongings from more than 3 feet of floodwater and didn’t think to turn on the radio. Though they had power, the storm had knocked out their satellite TV reception.
Many of their neighbors also were unaware of the danger that lurked. Their desperate pleas for information were posted beneath vague Facebook updates from the company. Interviews with about 10 residents also show that they didn’t receive emergency robocalls from Arkema that were ordered by a Harris County judge after a release of sulfuric acid more than 20 years ago.
Today, they are still angry about all they did not know until the knock on the door Aug. 29. And seven months later, they say they still know very little about any potential health effects from the flood and the fires.
They don’t know what chemicals they’ve been exposed to — or about any threat they face from the air they breathe or the water they continue to drink. They say that the company failed them before the accident, and that the state and the federal government have failed them afterward.
“I have a bitter taste in my mouth about Arkema,” Diane Glover said. “I feel like they should have reached out to everyone.”
The activity of the company and government regulators since the Arkema disaster falls into the pattern that has emerged seven months after the storm, a Houston Chronicle/Associated Press review of county, state and federal records shows. The extent of the environmental assault is starting to emerge, and Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency declaration suspending state environmental rules remains in effect, making it more difficult for local authorities to press their case against companies that lost control of their petroleum and chemical products.
During the height of the chaos, Environmental Protection Agency officials, along with Arkema, repeatedly assured residents that the air and water were not dangerous. Contractors for the company and federal regulators conducted some sampling of air and water as well as solid ash produced by the fires in the aftermath of the storm, but homeowners, lawyers and environmental experts say it was done in a haphazard, patchwork way that was inadequate to establish whether there is a threat to public health.
Arkema, for example, tested the wells of 37 homes; there are roughly 350 homes within 1.5 miles of the plant, though it’s unclear how many get their water from private wells.
“I don’t think they did enough analyses,” said Hussain Abdulla, an assistant professor of chemistry at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, who examined the test results at the request of the news organizations. He referred both to the company and to regulators.
EPA test results show peroxide in the air near Arkema at the time of the accident. And testing of some private wells at the homes near the plant showed elevated levels of some metals that the company says are not byproducts of their production. The tests also found acetone, a chemical used by Arkema that can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and confusion. It is the primary ingredient in nail polish remover.
Federal officials have declined to answer reporters’ questions, directing them instead to information on the EPA website.
Texas state environmental authorities did not conduct any tests of sediment, groundwater or air around the plant site either during or after the storm, records show. Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality declined to be interviewed, citing a pending investigation into the incident.
The EPA and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office are also investigating. Harris and Liberty counties are suing the company.
Records previously obtained by the Houston Chronicle show that the company’s emergency response plan had little direction on how to handle a major flood. Its power transformers and backup generators were not high enough off the ground, and it had a tank of an extremely dangerous chemical, isobutylene, located about 40 yards from six trailers loaded with organic peroxides that had been relocated during the storm.
Arkema spokeswoman Janet Smith said company officials have taken a number of steps to help those who live near the plant.
“We’re extremely sorry that our incident caused an evacuation at a time when our neighbors were already reeling from a historic storm,” Smith said. “We care about our community, and we demonstrated this in Crosby before, during and after Hurricane Harvey.”
The company is the North American branch of the Colombes, France-based chemicals manufacturer that specializes in vinyl products including PVC, cholorochemicals and compounds. It has two dozen facilities in the United States, including plants in Crosby, Bayport, Clear Lake and Beaumont. The Crosby facility has had a history of regulatory problems related to the improper storage of organic peroxides and the mishandling of hazardous materials.
Rock Owens, Harris County’s environmental attorney, said officials want to make sure the August incident isn’t repeated.
“Our primary mission (now) is when the plant reopens — maybe in the spring sometime — that it’s in the condition where this cannot happen again,” Owens said. “What we found so far was just a lack of preparation for this kind of event. We think that plant could upgrade — and they probably need to move some of this material off site.”
The after effects of the Arkema accident
When it became clear that the chemicals stored at Arkema’s Crosby plant were going to catch fire, emergency personnel evacuated residents within a 1.5 mile radius of the site. Despite this evacuation, chemicals were released into the air and the water during the accident.
After a 5-year-old girl was severely burned during a 1994 sulfuric acid release at the Crosby plant, a Harris County judge ordered in 1996 that the company alert residents within a mile of its property when potential dangers arise.
Residents who live within that boundary estimate those emergency calls came more than 10 times during the past 10 years.
But the Glovers, along with their neighbors Margaret and Tom Lewis, say that call never came when Harvey bore down on the area.
The order requires plant officials to “activate the system in the event of any release of pollutants with potentially adverse health or safety impacts.” The list of active phone numbers must be updated “to the maximum extent practicable every six months,” it states.
Owens said the company appears to have failed to activate the call system. He said that had raised questions for the county, adding that having to evacuate people without notice means they likely “suffered hardship, difficulty and damages.”
Emergency personnel began evacuating residents within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant Aug. 29. An analysis of Harris County property records and U.S. Census Bureau data shows there are 350 homes in that area.
Harris County has filed suit against the company. Separately, several first responders and about 660 local residents have also sued Arkema. Neither the Glovers nor the Lewises are involved in the residents’ lawsuit.
Janet Smith, an Arkema spokeswoman, said the question of whether the company issued robocalls as required is “part of pending litigation.”
However, she said Arkema communicated with local residents through media statements and news releases, as well as Twitter and Facebook posts. The company also posted updates on its website, created a 24/7 phone hotline and placed messages on an industry-run cell phone application called “Community Awareness Emergency Response” (CAER) for informing the public about potentially hazardous incidents.
A review of posts on Arkema’s Facebook page shows that the company posted ambiguous messages more than 10 times between Aug. 29 and when the evacuation order was lifted Sept. 4, redirecting concerned residents to the company’s website. The company posted more detailed information there.
Before Arkema posted its first update on Aug. 29, the plant completely lost electrical power, forcing the skeleton crew still there to move highly volatile organic peroxides into refrigeration trailers to keep them cool. They can explode if they get too hot.
And those trailers already had started to fail.
Arkema’s first website update at 8 a.m. on Aug. 29 told residents that they didn’t need to worry: “Arkema does not believe that the situation presents a risk to the community or the ride-out crew, due to the distance between the refrigerated cars and any people.” By that time, the workers had been given the OK to leave, and one already had.
About six hours later, Arkema posted another Facebook update at 2:30 p.m., saying the situation had become “serious.”
The potential for a fire or explosion on site due to the compromised trailers was “real,” company officials wrote, but still they felt there was no “imminent danger.” Arkema officials posted an update again at 5:50 p.m., with little new information.
At the time, Arkema officials did not inform residents of a wastewater spill earlier that day into the floodwaters that had inundated the plant.
State records show that Arkema reported the accidental release of up to 18,000 gallons of stormwater laced with mineral oil and residual organics. That spill, which mingled with floodwaters in the plant and ran downstream toward Cedar Bayou, also caused a release of chemicals into the air including ethylbenzene, which is linked to cancer but can also cause inner ear and kidney damage, as well as vertigo; trimethylbenzene, which can cause chemical pneumonia and chronic bronchitis; and tert-butyl alcohol, which can affect the kidneys and thyroid.
“We reported this inundation of our wastewater system to TCEQ, which is a public agency,” Smith said. “Consistent with other industry in the area, we broadly notified the community about issues that we believed presented a potential threat to community members.”
With each new Facebook post, frightened local residents and their family members posted questions, at points demanding information about how they might be affected. Company officials did not respond publicly to those questions on their Facebook page.
The Glovers did not see any of these updates. The couple does not use social media. Neither do the Lewises.
On Aug. 30, Arkema said on its website that the organic peroxide in the refrigerated containers likely would catch fire. It listed “key health effects” related to smoke exposure from an organic peroxide fire, which included eye, skin and respiratory irritation, as well as dizziness, drowsiness and nausea.
The update also noted that there was “a small possibility” that the chemicals could be released into floodwaters — without saying anything about the spill that had occurred the previous day.
“While it is possible that you may see an oil sheen or smell a slight odor, we anticipate the break down products would dissipate in the water or evaporate,” the update stated.
The first trailer caught fire Thursday, Aug. 31, and Arkema later reported that it had released acetone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and 2-ethylhexanol, among other chemicals, according to the county lawsuit. Two more trailers burned in the days that followed, leading to a controlled burn of the remaining trailers on Sept. 3.
Volatile organic compounds were detected in the air between 2.5 and 3 miles northwest of the plant, accompanied by a laundry detergent-like odor, smoke and falling ash, according to Harris County’s lawsuit.
No state testing
Bret Simmons cried out in pain as he pushed his motorcycle through the floodwaters near Arkema on Aug. 29, his legs burning more with each staggered step through the water, he contends in a lawsuit.
Once he and his wife, Phyllis, made it safely to higher ground, they stopped to examine his legs. They were covered in blisters, lesions and burns. Phyllis was safe from the floodwaters, the residents’ lawsuit states, because she was seated on the motorcycle with her legs out of the water. Bret sought medical treatment.
On the same day, state officials had been told by Arkema that chemicals were spilled into the floodwaters around the plant. Additionally, state records show that several days later, on Sept. 1, Arkema told the state environmental agency that material stored in a container on site was decomposing and mixing with stormwater, which caused a threat to Cedar Bayou.
“… it is unsafe to be in the vicinity, due to floodwaters,” the records stated, adding that Arkema was performing tests around the facility.
On Sept. 1, the EPA collected six surface water runoff samples from four locations outside the evacuation zone near residential homes, according to a Sept. 8 news release.
The results were lower than what would warrant an investigation, according to the release, and no volatile or semi-volatile organic chemicals were detected.
The next day, Sept. 2, emails show agency officials discussing a yellow “discharge” oozing from some of the trailers full of chemicals on the site in the days after Harvey made landfall.
Multiple aerial photos taken by federal officials capture the spread of this substance, which officials said in an email “appears to be heating.”
The Houston Police Department’s bomb squad began setting fire to the remaining containers on site on Sept. 3.
The contractors hired by Arkema waited until Sept. 6 to test the stormwater, taking samples from 41 drainage and containment ditches in and around the facility, according to a state environmental document produced in October. The results of 13 of those samples were made available to the state as of Oct. 9.
All 13 samples showed elevated levels of acetone, a chemical found in the company’s inventory, and methane. Benzene, a known carcinogen, also was detected in one of the areas tested, according to results published on the state environmental agency’s website.
The contractors did not test any stormwater near homes surrounding the plant.
A&M Corpus Christi’s Abdulla said he was concerned about the “approaches and analysis” of the testing.
For example, he noted the apparent lack of testing for dioxins, which could have been released when the refrigerated trailers full of organic peroxides burned.
“There were no analyses conducted for these compounds in the air, soil and the water around the accident area,” he said. “In addition, there is no information about the materials that made these refrigerated trailers, as some older models could contain asbestos.”
Drinking the water
The Glovers wake up each morning hoping that their well is free of toxic chemicals.
They treated the well with bleach numerous times in an attempt to cleanse their drinking water, but they lacked the funds to have it tested. Lab-certified well water testing can cost $25 to $400, depending on what toxins are being screened, according to Wisconsin-based Clean Water Testing Certified Lab and Services.
That cost seemed overwhelming to the couple. Their home of three decades was so damaged in Harvey they had to bulldoze it and start over with a double-wide trailer.
“It comes to a point where you have to say, ‘We’re just going to take our chances,’ ” Diane Glover said. “We don’t have the money to do that, and I wish Arkema would do that for us.”
Arkema did conduct tests for some residents. A contractor hired by the company conducted private well testing at the request of residents, said Smith, the company spokeswoman.
The Glovers said they did not know they could ask Arkema to test their water.
The company’s contractor tested 37 wells around the site, Smith said, and “none of the wells we tested showed levels of our chemicals that exceeded residential limits established by the State of Texas.”
The results of those tests show that many wells had elevated levels of barium, a heavy metal never found in nature as a free element, while others showed elevated levels of lead, acetone, and bis(2-Chloroethyl)ether, used to make pesticides as well as paint and varnish. Smith said that barium and lead would not be related to the plant and it’s not clear if any of the other chemicals are from the August accident.
Those test results were provided to the individual well owners, the state’s website stated. In Texas, there is no regulatory oversight to ensure water quality for owners of private wells, according to the Texas Groundwater Protection Committee.
In looking at the test results, Abdulla said these “single snapshot” measures couldn’t reveal the true environmental impact of the accident. However, he said some of the results of the drinking water analyses were “alarming.”
For example, Abdulla said the testing results of one well showed elevated levels of bromodichloromethane — known to cause kidney and liver problems in animals — and chloroform, “which could be a byproduct of chlorine disinfection or some leaks of the organic solvents that (are) used to synthesize organic peroxides.”
The company does not plan on testing any more wells, Smith said.
“We have done a substantial amount of testing as requested by our neighbors in Crosby, and we don’t believe additional well-water testing is warranted because none of our testing has shown levels of our chemicals that exceed residential limits established by the State of Texas for drinking water wells,” she said.
Kevin Thompson, a West Virginia-based attorney representing Bret and Phyllis Simmons and about 660 other Crosby residents, said initial testing results conducted on behalf of his firm show that water in and around the plant is toxic. Arkema and the EPA, he said, were not testing for all the appropriate chemicals.
Testing paid for by Thompson’s firm showed levels of cyanide and bromodichloromethane in private water wells that exceeded the state and federal screening standards. Surface water samples taken show levels of arsenic that exceed the human health risk-based exposure limits for humans and fish.
A HISTORY OF PROBLEMS
The sulfuric acid release of the 1990s isn’t the only time Arkema has found itself in hot water with regulatory agencies.
In 2006, the state cited the plant for a fire caused by improperly stored organic peroxides.
Five years later, the state cited the plant again, this time for failing to maintain proper temperatures of its thermal oxidizer.
And in 2016, the federal government took notice. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Arkema $91,724 after finding 10 violations at the Crosby site, many involving the mishandling of hazardous materials.
“Process safety management prevents the unexpected release of toxic, reactive or flammable liquids and gases in processes involving highly hazardous chemicals,” said David Doucet, director of OSHA’s Houston North Area Office. “It’s vital that Arkema ensure that safeguards are in place to protect the safety of workers at this facility.”
Arkema’s CEO Richard Rowe said last fall that the company spent millions of dollars on upgrades after the fines and believed all issues cited in the inspections had been addressed.
Arkema, however, could be in more regulatory trouble after the various agencies complete their investigations into the August accident.
Lise Olsen contributed to this report.
About the series: This series is the result of a collaboration between the Chronicle and the Associated Press.
Alex Stuckey joined the Chronicle as the NASA, science and environment reporter in 2017. She is a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for her work at the Salt Lake Tribune on how Utah colleges handle reports of sexual assault. That same year, she was named a Livingston Finalist and, several years prior, won an Investigative Reporters and Editors award for a story on the failed reporting of drug seizures in Ohio that resulted in a seven-year jail sentence for former Athens County Sheriff Pat Kelly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at@alexdstuckey.
Multimedia by Elizabeth Conley and John Mone
Interactives and design by Jordan Rubio