Noxious chemical fire during Hurricane Harvey caused by failure of all 'layers of protection,’ probe reveals

The fire during Hurricane Harvey forced residents to leave to avoid toxic smoke.

May 25, 2018, 11:56 AM

A federal investigation into the fire at a chemical facility during Hurricane Harvey found that all the layers of protection failed and that companies need to be more prepared ahead of the upcoming hurricane season, according to the findings of a probe into the incident.

The Arkema facility in Crosby, Texas stored a kind of chemical that needs to be kept cool to keep from heating up and catching fire, which can cause an explosion. During Hurricane Harvey the Arkema facility lost power, backup cooling systems failed, and refrigerated trailers flooded, causing the chemicals to catch fire and release noxious smoke, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal panel charged with investigating such accidents.

More than 200 residents had to evacuate because of the chemical fumes and noxious smoke caused by a fire from the Arkema facility in Crosby, Texas and 21 people sought medical attention.

A fire burns at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, Sept. 1, 2017.
KTRK, File

The Chemical Safety Board panel found there was a lack of planning for how severe weather events like the unprecedented rain during Hurricane Harvey could affect facilities that store chemicals and that even though Arkema had emergency generators and other backup systems "all of these layers of protection failed due to flooding."

The report issued Thursday also says that other companies like Arkema need to be more prepared to handle flooding and rain ahead of the upcoming hurricane season.

“Considering that extreme weather events are likely to increase in number and severity, the chemical industry must be prepared for worst-case scenarios at their facilities. We cannot stop the storms, but working together, we can mitigate the damage and avoid a future catastrophic incident," Chemical Safety Board Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland said in a statement Thursday.

A flooded chemical plant owned by the Arkema Group is pictured after reports of fire at the facility in Crosby, Texas, Aug. 31, 2017.
Adrees Latif/Reuters, FILE

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its prediction Thursday that there could be one to four major storms in the severe weather season that officially starts on June 1.

Arkema said in a statement to ABC News that the report confirms that the company took steps to prepare for the storm but that the flooding from Hurricane Harvey was "unprecedented."

"Arkema is pleased that after an eight-month-long investigation, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) report accurately depicts the unforeseeable nature of the situation Arkema faced during Hurricane Harvey. The CSB report shows that Arkema had multiple policies and safeguards in place to address the risks associated with hurricanes, that Arkema followed those policies, and that our employees went to extraordinary lengths, under difficult conditions, to maintain safety at our site during the “most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in the history of the continental United States,” Arkema spokeswoman Janet Smith said in a statement on Friday.

Smith also said that the report makes important recommendations for Arkema and the chemical industry in general and that the industry's current standards at the time were not enough to prevent the fire or future incidents.