With the smell of hydrocarbons still in the air, reassurances that the citizens of Rouen, France could “live and work absolutely normally” just days after over 9,000 pounds of potentially hazardous chemicals burned in a massive fire, fell flat. Françoise Perchepied, a retired housekeeper, captured the community’s anger at the Lubrizol plant incident with “I might move somewhere else,” adding, “Everything is polluted. We just don’t want to be poisoned.” And, while authorities insisted there was nothing to fear, Normandy farmers were still instructed to dump milk and leave fields unharvested.
Months earlier, and an ocean away, residents of Deer Park, near Houston, Texas, were also skeptical of official claims that a four-day blaze at the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) held no lingering effects. After school cancellations and shelter in place orders, one resident, Kristen Crump, told the Associated Press, “I do not fully trust what they say . . . I do believe what is in the air is very harmful and it can have long-term effects such as cancer and things like that down the line. I don’t think it’s worth risking that for me or my kids to stay here and breathe in this stuff.”
At the ITC storage facility, the lack of a remotely controlled shut-off valve, and gas detection equipment, greatly contributed to the severity of the event. Workers were left unaware of the release of flammable naptha near an 80,000-gallon storage tank and then powerless to shut-off the flow from that tank once it began to feed a raging fire. In Rouen, the cause of the fire remains under investigation, but investigators have cited insufficient water supply for firefighting, a lack of fire detection equipment for chemicals stored outdoors, and an inadequate gutter system to contain hazardous runoff.
Firefighters worked valiantly to battle blazes in both incidents. However, the components of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem are intended to work in concert, not individually. If the owners of either of those plants had invested in more heavily in fire safety, resulting minor incidents might have prevented a slew of lawsuits and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for environmental damages. More importantly, residents or Deer Park and Rouen would not need to fear the air they breathe.
Speaking of concerts though, Government Responsibility should be playing a bigger role. In Houston, dotted with thousands of above-ground storage tanks, Texas lawmakers know there are gaps in inspections and standards for these tanks, which is particularly concerning given the area’s vulnerability to major storms and flooding. In Rouen, French lawmakers have also identified ways to improve regulations intended to keep communities with major facilities in their midst safe from these disasters. Policymakers should not wait for the next plume of acrid smoke to act to protect communities.