The Environmental Protection Agency has opened an inquiry into whether the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas followed federal safety rules to protect against hazards, following explosions at the facility that resulted from Hurricane Harvey flooding.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told the Washington Examiner on Monday he authorized a request for information to Arkema under Section 114 of the Clean Air Act about whether the company complied with a risk management plan filed with the federal government.
Depending on the information obtained by the EPA, the agency can issue administrative, civil or criminal action against Arkema, a multinational company based in France.
"I issued something called a 114 letter, which was a communication to Arkema to say you need to advise and inform me about your risk management plan [RMP] and whether you followed the specifics of the RMP and were you adequately prepared," Pruitt told the Washington Examiner in an interview. "There is some question about whether the RMP that was in place there was actually complied with."
The EPA, in a letter issued Sept. 7 and obtained by Washington Examiner, has ordered Arkema to respond within 10 days to questions about the handling of chemicals known as organic peroxides, which are combustible if not kept refrigerated. The EPA also wants to know the amount of chemical materials kept at the plant, and the measures taken in advance to guard against flooding and loss of electricity.
Containers of the chemicals burst into flames on Aug. 31 after power outages caused by Hurricane Harvey shut off cooling systems that kept the chemicals stable.
A group of first responders sued Arkema last week, claiming they suffered "serious bodily injuries" from exposure to the toxic chemicals. The plaintiffs were manning the perimeter of a 1.5-mile evacuation zone imposed two days before the explosions, and the lawsuit alleged that after the blasts happened, no one from Arkema told the first responders.
In a statement Thursday, Arkema insisted its employees "did everything they could to protect the public" in a dangerous situation.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has initiated an investigation of the Arkema plant in Crosby to examine its risk management plans, which must be filed every four years with the EPA.
The New York Times reported last week Arkema identified in its risk management plan to the federal government that floods and hurricanes, as well as power failure and loss of cooling, were threats to its Crosby chemical plant.
But in its filing with the government, Arkema did not provide contingency plans to address those concerns, the Times said.
While Arkema faces scrutiny, the incident has also provoked criticism towards the Trump administration's efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations aimed at toughening safety requirements for companies that store large amounts of dangerous chemicals.
The EPA rule, which had not yet been implemented, would have required chemical plants to make public the types and quantities of chemicals they store. Pruitt delayed the rule taking effect until 2019 to allow the agency time to consider industry concerns.
Arkema lobbied against the rule, the Associated Press reported, and told the EPA in a May 2016 letter the proposal "will likely add significant new costs and burdens" and "could create a risk to our sites and to the communities surrounding them."
Pruitt on Monday defended his action to roll back the Obama rule, and said too much transparency can be dangerous.
"Risk management plans are important tools, and I am very much in favor of risk management plans," Pruitt told the Washington Examiner. "The concern about some of those risk management plans is the data in those RMPs are actually intelligence or information our adversaries — terrorists — can use to attack soft targets across this country. So we [have to] make sure those RMPs are done the right way to assure we are not equipping our adversaries."
Despite those concerns, Pruitt said Arkema should have to prove it followed the rules on hand, or suffer consequences if it did not.
"Citizens in communities deserve to know what is going on with that chemical plant," Pruitt said. "It's important for us to follow-up and make sure that it [the risk management plan] was complied with, and there's accountability there. What that means at this point has yet to be determined because we don't know all the information yet."