Arkema issues confused, self-serving statements as its chemical plant explodes

Image: CNBC

Yesterday, Rich Rowe, CEO of Arkema, warned that his chemical plant near Houston might explode. Today it exploded. When you know something like this is going to happen, you need to get right to the point. Rich Rowe didn’t.

The Arkema plant is in Crosby, Texas, about 25 miles from downtown Houston. Houston, of course, is in the midst of a catastrophic flood from Hurricane Harvey. The plant makes organic peroxides, used in plastics and pharmaceuticals. Unless refrigerated, these chemicals become flammable and unstable. While the plant has backups for refrigeration, not surprisingly, the backups failed in the biblical flood. Fire officials evacuated nearby homes before the explosion.

When you’re announcing an imminent explosion, don’t fool around

You can argue about whether the plant should have prepared better for this emergency, or whether there is no possible preparation for a disaster like this. But regardless, the communications team needed a plan for a problem like this. Instead they delivered a statement that meanders all over the place instead of getting to the point, which is that the plant is going to explode. If you’re a media person or a local resident, you need to know what’s going to happen and what to do. Everything else is secondary.

The statement on the Arkema web site is an improvised pastiche that mixes fonts, colors, and approaches. Here’s the text and my commentary, with weasel words shown in bold and passive voice in italic.

Arkema Inc. incident news

News posted here is for the sole purpose of informing the public of any current and/or ongoing incidents.  Once the incident is resolved, this content will be archived.  Follow us on Twitter and check this site for updated information.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION REGARDING HEALTH EFFECTS AND FIRST AID CAN BE FOUND FURTHER DOWN THE PAGE…

Recent press release issued:

Explosions and Smoke Reported at Arkema Inc. Crosby Plant

At approximately 2 a.m. CDT, we were notified by the Harris County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of two explosions and black smoke coming from the Arkema Inc. plant in Crosby, Texas.

Commentary: “Arkema Inc. incident news” is too mild a heading for an imminent chemical explosion. After this, the page talks about itself, then tells you to scroll down, then adds a link to a more recent press release about the explosions. None of this crap belongs at the top. A plan to communicate about an emergency should include a plan to create and maintain an accurate Web site about the emergency, with the most important news at the top.

Comments from Rich Rowe, President & CEO, Arkema Inc. on our Site in Crosby, Texas

Learn more about the Crosby, Texas site

5:55 pm est., August 30, 2017

The nation is dealing with a natural disaster of enormous magnitude in Texas. As part of that, Arkema is dealing with a critical issue at our Crosby, Texas facility.Please let me begin by thanking our brave and dedicated employees who safely shut down the site before Hurricane Harvey made landfall. Like everyone else in the region, these folks were dealing with personal and family issues caused by the storm, yet they performed their tasks in the most professional manner.

Next, we apologize to everyone impacted by our situation, particularly in combination with the horrible conditions visited upon the region by the hurricane. We are working closely with many governmental authorities and first responders, and we want to thank them for their guidance, professionalism and dedication. People are working around the clock under extremely challenging conditions, and the work thus far has been tremendous. We cherish the strong relationships and support we have received from our neighbors, the United States Department of Homeland Security, Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency, Harris County Fire Marshall’s Office, Harris County Texas Sheriff’s Office, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and our elected representatives.

Commentary: This is the start of the actual statement, but once again Arkema has buried the lede. The milquetoast title “Comments from Rich Rowe . . . on our Site in Crosby, Texas” gives no clue about the explosive nature of what he’s about to discuss. Rowe then cites the magnitude of the hurricane (obvious to everyone), thanks his staff, issues a vague, blanket apology to “everyone impacted by our situation,” and thanks the government. These elements all belong in the statement, but should follow the part about the explosions. If there ever was a time to get to the point, this is it.

Our Crosby facility makes organic peroxides, a family of compounds that are used in everything from making pharmaceuticals to construction materials. But organic peroxides may burn if not stored and handled under the right conditions. At Crosby, we prepared for what we recognized could be a worst case scenario. We had redundant contingency plans in place. Right now, we have an unprecedented 6 feet of water at the plant. We have lost primary power and two sources of emergency backup power. As a result, we have lost critical refrigeration of the materials on site that could now explode and cause a subsequent intense fire. The high water and lack of power leave us with no way to prevent it. We have evacuated our personnel for their own safety. The federal, state and local authorities were contacted a few days ago, and we are working very closely with them to manage this matter. They have ordered the surrounding community to be evacuated, too.

Commentary: We finally get to the problem, but even here, Rowe starts with a tutorial on peroxides, the weaselly and passive “may burn if not stored and handled under the right conditions,” and a self-justifying description of backup systems. Finally we get to “could now explode and cause a subsequent intense fire.” This is the lede, and he’s effectively buried it. Here’s how he should have handled the first two parts of the statement:

We are setting up a call center to handle questions from neighbors and others affected, and a claims center to handle financial claims related to Arkema’s Crosby situation. Also, we’ve reached out to local crisis leaders in Harris County and offered our support. Once more, we apologize for impacting their lives. We thank the governmental authorities who are working closely with us for their guidance and professionalism, and will continue to work with them until this situation is resolved.

Thank you.

Commentary: You already said most of that, except the part about the call center and the claims center. But since both are not yet set up, they don’t add much.

How this statement should have read

Arkema CEO Rich Rowe explains how and why the Crosby, Texas Plant may explode

Our plant in Crosby, Texas makes volatile chemicals called organic peroxides. Because of a failure of refrigeration in the plant, these chemicals are likely to explode or catch fire. If you’re close by, you should evacuate, as local authorities have ordered.

We shut down the plant in preparation for the storm. However, the plant has now lost power and both of our emergency backups have failed due to unprecedented degrees of flooding. We have evacuated our own staff for their own safety, and due to the flooding there is no way to restore the refrigeration, which is necessary to prevent the likelihood of explosion. (Update: we’ve now experienced explosions and smoke at the plant.) We apologize to the local residents and anyone else who have experienced hardship as a result of this emergency. I am grateful to the employees who stayed to shut down the plant and the United States Department of Homeland Security, Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency, Harris County Fire Marshall’s Office, Harris County Texas Sheriff’s Office, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and our elected representatives, who have worked with us to manage this emergency.

But wait, there’s even more randomly organized crap

In addition to the throat-clearing at the top, the communications staff added a bunch of other sections at the bottom. Some are self-serving and others seem crucial, but there’s no indication of what’s important. You can skip this if you’ve had enough and go down to my final section of analysis, “Disaster planning includes an online communications plan.”

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION – CROSBY SITE, August 30, 2017, 9:30 pm

SITE OVERVIEW

The Arkema Crosby site is located at 18000 Crosby Eastgate Rd, Crosby, TX 77532. The facility produces liquid organic peroxides that are used primarily in the production of plastic resins, polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC and polyester reinforced fiberglass, and acrylic resins. There are 57 employees employed at the facility. The facility is in a rural area with no hospitals, schools, correctional facilities or recreational areas or industrial/commercial areas in the vicinity. The plant has never experienced flooding of this magnitude before.

Organic peroxides are a family of chemical compounds that are used in the manufacture of plastics and composites. They are also used in certain skin treatments and pharmaceuticals. The material naturally degrades and some types can be unstable unless refrigerated. The flooding in Crosby and the loss of power has disabled the plant’s normal and emergency backup refrigeration systems.

Low-temperature organic peroxides are flammable liquids that naturally degrade and can become unstable unless refrigerated. If unrefrigerated, the product can rapidly break down and catch fire. For additional information, please see www.luperox.com/en/safety/

Commentary: Thanks for helping journalists do background research on organic peroxides, with a self-serving “it’s in a rural area” thrown in for good measure.

HURRICANE HARVEY EMERGENCY INFORMATION

Potential Acute Health Effects:

We are assuming exposure to smoke from a fire containing organic peroxides and/or degradation products of hydrocarbons and alcohols.

Exposure to organic peroxides may cause eye, skin and/or respiratory irritation. The smoke may also contain organic peroxide degradation products, including hydocarbons and alcohols. These degradation products may also cause eye, skin and/or respiratory irritation or skin sensitization. In addition, they may cause nausea, drowsiness or dizziness.

First Aid

In case of exposure, contact physician or go to nearest hospital emergency room.

Provide your physician/hospital with the phone number for Rocky Mountain Poison Center: (866) 767-5089. They will provide medical advice.

Commentary: This is vague and not particularly helpful. I’d be more impressed if they could spell “hydrocarbon” properly.

Community Evacuation

The Harris County Fire Marshall’s Office has stated that, as a precautionary measure, all residents within a 1.5 mile radius of the Crosby plant have been evacuated. Arkema does not make evacuation decisions, and for further information on evacuations, please contact the Harris County Fire Marshall’s Office.

Commentary: Crucial information, but written evasively to avoid blame (“The Fire Marshall decides who evacuates.”) On the off chance someone reads this and wants real information on whether to evacuate, Arkema has not even provided the phone number or a web link for the Fire Marshall’s office.

Hurricane Measures and Plant Status

The plant made extensive preparations prior to Hurricane Harvey. We have backup generators at the site solely for the purpose of being a redundant power supply for refrigeration necessary for the safe storage of products. We also brought in diesel powered refrigerated tank trailers and additional fuel as a further redundancy. Employees safely shut down all operations on Friday August 25, prior to the hurricane’s landfall. We left a small “ride-out” crew on site to address situations that could arise at the site during the storm to protect the safety and security of the community. The site lost primary power early Sunday morning. The additional back-up generators subsequently were inundated by water and failed. On Monday, temperature sensitive products were transferred into 8 diesel-powered refrigerated containers where they currently reside. We evacuated the ride-out crew on Tuesday for their safety. As of today, most of the refrigeration units have failed due to flooding. The site itself is now completely flooded and inaccessible except by boat. In conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security and the State of Texas, Arkema has set up a command post in an off-site location near the plant.

Arkema and governmental authorities are monitoring this closely. It will take time for the low-temperature product to degrade, ignite, burn, and disperse. DHS reports indicate that the water around Crosby will crest in the about 5 to 7 days. Unfortunately, until the water recedes, Arkema and governmental authorities have concluded that there are no further actions at the site that can be taken safely.

Commentary: A fascinating narrative to explain how screwed we all are.

Potential Fire or Release

The most likely outcome is that, anytime between now and the next few days, the low-temperature peroxide in unrefrigerated trailers will degrade and catch fire.

There is a small possibility that the organic peroxide will release into the flood waters but will not ignite and burn. In that situation, we would expect the materials to break down rapidly into hydrocarbons and alcohols. The flood waters could carry the hydrocarbons and alcohols off-site. While it is possible that you may see an oil sheen or smell a slight odor, we anticipate the break down products would dissipate in the water or evaporate.

In the alternate, there could be a combination event involving fire and environmental release.

Any fire will probably resemble a large gasoline fire. The fire will be explosive and intense. Smoke will be released into the atmosphere and dissipate. People should remain clear of the area.

Translation: We’re screwed even if it doesn’t catch on fire.

Potential Effects on Neighbors

The fires from the burning organic peroxides will emit thick black smoke. The smoke might be irritating to the eyes, skin and lungs. There are other flammable raw materials on site that could also catch fire, and Arkema and governmental authorities are monitoring the plant. We will continue to provide health information as developments occur. If you feel that you have been affected by any smoke from this incident, please contact your doctor or otherwise seek medical attention.

With respect to potential impacts on nearby property, that depends upon what happens at the site, which we can’t predict right now. As we get more information, we will provide it.

The plant has a permitted underground injection well. The wastewater discharged by Arkema is not hazardous wastewater under Texas law. The plant is currently under over 5 feet of water, so we are unable evaluate the condition of the underground injection well. As soon as we have access to the plant, we will be conducting a full assessment.

Conclusion

We are working closely with federal, state and local authorities to minimize the impact on our neighbors and the surrounding community. We have evacuated our employees, and there is a governmental evacuation order for the surrounding community. We continue to monitor this situation.

Commentary: Hard to believe the part about the effect of burning peroxides comes at the bottom. Isn’t this the most important piece of health information?

Disaster planning includes an online communications plan

I can understand why the people running this plant were unable to prevent the explosions.

I cannot understand why their communications staff are unable to properly create a statement on a web page about it. They could have planned for this.

The plan would include setting up a page that includes the crucial information and keeping it up to date. It would use links to put additional information where it doesn’t get in the way of what’s important. And it would focus on actual problems (e.g. explosions) and effects on surrounding residents (e.g. exposure to chemical fires, the need to evacuate) at the top. The rest would be organized and easy to follow.

Instead, we get this page with everything shouting for attention and in random order, half of which appears to be written by liability lawyers.

If you have the potential for disaster, you have the responsibility for planning how to communicate when disaster hits. Don’t make it up on the fly.

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