Ponder Hurricane Harvey’s Hard Knocks

Sept. 20, 2017
A safety guru provides perspectives in the aftermath of the hurricane.

An invisible rabbit may come to mind to people of a certain age when they hear the name “Harvey.” That 6-ft 3½-in. “púca” (a phantom cited in Celtic folklore) costarred with James Stewart in the 1950 film of the same name. Unfortunately, everyone from now on probably will associate “Harvey” with something not at all entertaining — the horrible hurricane that devastated the Texas Gulf Coast.


The storm battered chemical plants and refineries in the area but didn’t wreak widespread havoc. Sites shut down before the storm, so most incidents weren’t too severe — minor upsets, extensive flaring and unplanned releases of chemicals — notes Dr. Sam Mannan, Director of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A & M University and presenter of CP’s popular ongoing series of process safety webinars. (For details on these webinars, see “2018 Webinars Address Process Safety.”)

The notable exception occurred at Arkema’s plant in Crosby, Texas. There, flooding took out the backup power for the refrigeration system that cooled nine containers holding unstable organic peroxides. This led to their decomposition and ensuing explosions at three containers that generated large amounts of noxious black smoke. Then, after seeing signs of product leaking from the six remaining containers, Arkema, in consultation with authorities, conducted a controlled ignition of those containers on September 4th.

The Arkema incident had a bright spot of sorts, notes Mannan. While the company’s prevention and mitigation steps didn’t suffice, at least its response seemed appropriate and showed a high degree of coordination between Arkema, local emergency responders and other government agencies, he says. This avoided loss of life and major injuries, Mannan believes.

Now, as chemical makers and refiners strive to resume normal operations, they face serious challenges, he adds. “Getting these production facilities back online is a very complex problem. In addition to making sure that all employees are available and not personally impacted by Harvey, there is a need for a large number of additional specialized manpower… In the post-Harvey startups, additional care and inspections are needed to make sure that equipment or storage that may have been compromised by Harvey does not result in undesirable outcomes.”

To help avoid problems, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has issued a special safety alert: “After Harvey: Precautions Needed During Oil and Chemical Facility Startup.

The experience of Harvey as well as other recent incidents, e.g., explosions at West, Texas, and Tianjin, China, underscore the importance of knowing about hazardous materials present in communities, Mannan stresses.

“The whole experience with Harvey has again put issues regarding land-use planning front and center. We need to have a national dialogue and develop some consensus with regard to location of sites near sensitive population zones. Currently, we do not have any requirements either at the federal level or local level to lay out guidelines and enforce these guidelines… By the same token, as much as possible we also must select the location of hazardous materials’ sites away from areas that are prone to extreme weather.

“Finally, we must have a national tracking system (database) for hazardous materials’ incident surveillance. There is presently no reliable means for evaluating the performance of industry in limiting the number and severity of accidental chemical releases. There also are limited data with which to prioritize efforts to reduce the risks associated with such releases. Without this information, there are no means to measure the effectiveness of present programs or to guide future efforts. An incident surveillance system also could be used to improve planning, response capability and infrastructure changes,” notes Mannan.

Attendees at this month’s Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center International Symposium in College Station, Texas, undoubtedly will discuss the impact and implications of Hurricane Harvey. A wider and ongoing dialogue followed by concrete actions, as Dr. Mannan suggests, ultimately may enable us to address the issues properly rather than hoping someone will pull a rabbit out of a hat.

MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can email him at [email protected].
About the Author

Mark Rosenzweig | Former Editor-in-Chief

Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's former editor-in-chief. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' magazine Chemical Engineering Progress. Before that, he held a variety of roles, including European editor and managing editor, at Chemical Engineering. He has received a prestigious Neal award from American Business Media. He earned a degree in chemical engineering from The Cooper Union. His collection of typewriters now exceeds 100, and he has driven a 1964 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk for more than 40 years.

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