Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the coast of Texas on August 25, its devastating impact has been felt across dozens of towns, cities and nearby states in a number of ways, many of which have played out for the past several days on whatever device you use to obtain your news. The latest challenge being several fires that occurred at the Arkema chemical plant in the town of Crosby about 30 miles away from Houston.
Houston and the surrounding area is home to a vast array of chemical and petroleum plants and associated pipelines like Arkema, which means an impact of a different and challenging nature when the integrity of such facilities is compromised. As a result of the loss of power throughout the area, Arkema experienced fires involving stored chemicals used in their chemical process. These fires and related hazards (such as exposure to combustion byproducts released to the area) while serious, posed far less consequence overall because of the planning and preparedness steps that were in place well before such an emergency as the hurricane and attendant flooding and loss of power.
NFPA codes and standards contribute to that preparedness and planning and protect emergency responders during such challenges. For example, NFPA 400: Hazardous Materials Code provides safeguards to be followed when storing, handling and using hazardous chemicals including the organic peroxides at the Houston plant. Hazardous chemicals are often evaluated based on one of three hazardous conditions or characteristics – flammability, instability and health. These particular organic peroxides become unstable when their temperature is not managed through refrigerated storage. Because this facility conducted hazard assessments and implemented various safeguards called for by the codes, they have been better able to cope with this unique condition caused when they could no longer maintain the required refrigeration for the chemicals and fires that started due to the self-heating reaction. The emergency response system and the community effectively responded to the incident because of that prior planning and the information that was shared by the facility with the emergency responders and the community preparedness network. NFPA 400 calls for this type of planning and fire risk control.
Emergency response personnel are also prepared for active response to hazardous materials incidents through training and competency specifications contained in NFPA 472: Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents. With unstable materials the training and competencies ensure that there is a clear understanding of the hazards, which leads to proper decision making when a response is considered. In this case, through the information shared by the facility and the understanding that came with the specialized training of the emergency responders, coupled with the flooding that restricted fire department access, the decision was to order an evacuation of residents in advance of the fires and not attempt to fight these fires once they ignited.
In the aftermath of this horrible natural disaster, those involved with emergency planning and preparedness will be able to use this incident as a case study for many things going right in the face of challenging conditions. It should highlight the importance of these steps for the emergency response network – the responders, the facility owner/operators, and the public.
An event like the chemical plant fire in Crosby can raise questions for residents living near similar chemical or industrial plants in areas across the country. If you are or someone you know is looking for information, the local Emergency Planning Committee can provide information about the hazardous materials that may be stored at that location. During emergency events like Harvey, it’s important that residents monitor local media for updates, listen for evacuation orders and comply with them as quickly as possible.
For more information to help prepare you and your family for an emergency involving hazardous materials, visit NFPA’s “Get Ready! Preparing Your Community for a Disaster” webpage, which provides an informative Hazardous Materials Fact Sheet available in English and in Spanish. It’s free and easy to download and a great resource to share with friends, neighbors and family, and members of your community. The Get Ready! Toolkit also includes tools, tips and resources for first responders to help their communities prepare for other possible future disaster events.
NOTE: Ken Willette, NFPA’s segment director for first responders, contributed to this piece.