- David Sirotasenior editor for investigations at the International Business Times.
- Stephanie ThomasHouston-based organizer for Public Citizen.
- Matt Dempseydata reporter with the Houston Chronicle.
The flooded Arkema chemical plant in the town of Crosby, Texas, that saw two explosions on Thursday, could see as many as six more blasts, and a new investigation reveals this comes after Arkema successfully pressured federal regulators to delay new regulations aimed at improving safety procedures at chemical plants. It also found that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton aggressively attacked a proposed chemical plant safety rule, after his election campaign garnered over $100,000 from chemical industry donors. We speak with David Sirota, senior editor for investigations at the International Business Times. His story is headlined “Texas Republicans Helped Chemical Plant That Exploded Lobby Against Safety Rules.” We also speak with Stephanie Thomas, Houston-based organizer for Public Citizen, and Matt Dempsey, a Houston Chronicle data reporter who contributed to a series called “Chemical Breakdown,” which investigated regulatory failures of the chemical industry.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the flooded Arkema chemical plant in the town of Crosby, northeast of Houston, Texas, that saw a pair of explosions early Thursday, sending thick black smoke into the air. Officials evacuated residents within a one-and-a-half-mile radius of the facility, which produces highly volatile chemicals known as organic peroxides.
Well, a new investigation reveals the explosions come after Arkema successfully pressured federal regulators to delay new regulations aimed at improving safety procedures at chemical plants. It also found that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton aggressively attacked a proposed chemical plant safety rule, after his election campaign garnered over $100,000 from chemical industry donors.
We are still joined by Matt Dempsey of the Houston Chronicle, but we’re also joined, by going to Denver, by David Sirota, senior editor for investigations at the International Business Times, his new story headlined “Texas Republicans Helped Chemical Plant That Exploded Lobby Against Safety Rules.”
We welcome you, David, to Democracy Now! Before we go back to this chemical plant’s history, tell us exactly what happened, David Sirota. How is it possible that people so threatened by this plant—and more explosions are expected—don’t publicly know what they’re being exposed to?
DAVID SIROTA: Well, the rule that is at issue in our story is a rule that was proposed during the Obama era after the explosion, an earlier chemical plant explosion, in West Texas. The rule would have required third-party audits of safety procedures at chemical plants. It would have required more disclosure to the community about what is in chemical plants, what specific chemicals are being housed in chemical plants. And it would have mandated a better coordination and a closer relationship between chemical companies and first responders and emergency services in those communities.
And what ended up happening was, when that rule was proposed, Republicans in Congress, top Republicans, pushed forward a bill, a set of bills, both in the House and Senate, to basically delay and effectively kill that rule. And that was a way for them to signal that they wanted the Trump administration to kill that rule. As you mentioned and in our story, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also was one of the—one of a number of Republican officials who sent a letter to the EPA demanding that the rule basically be withdrawn. It was highly critical of the rule, saying it was overly burdensome to the chemical industry. You had Arkema, in a letter to the EPA, basically making the same argument. And you had the American Chemistry Council, which Arkema is a member of, which is a big lobbying group in Washington, also making similar arguments.
And then, what ended up happening was that the Texas—many Texas Republicans ended up supporting the legislation in the Congress, as they have been getting large campaign contributions from the chemical industry, legislation that would effectively kill those rules. And the Trump administration obliged. The Trump administration delayed those rules until at least 2019, Scott Pruitt issuing that order. Scott Pruitt himself, as attorney general of Oklahoma, he had supported—he had demanded that the EPA withdraw those rules, while he was running a group that had received $50,000 from the American Chemistry Council. So, effectively, what happened, you had chemical industry-funded politicians who made sure, and were successful, in helping the chemical industry, including Arkema, lobby to delay and, effectively, at least for now, kill those safety rules.
AMY GOODMAN: So, these rules—the company, Arkema, poured millions of dollars into lobbying, right after the Trump administration, because the rules were going into effect on March 14th?
DAVID SIROTA: Yeah, well, many chemical companies, including Arkema, were lobbying against these rules, by the way, during the Obama administration and then into the Trump administration era, through, again, lobbying groups like the American Chemistry Council. Arkema also lobbied on the rules. Other companies lobbied on the rules. I mean, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, SABIC, the Saudi Arabian part-government-owned chemical conglomerate, lobbied against these rules. And they were successful, and, again, as campaign cash had flowed into the coffers of many Republicans, many Republicans from Texas, who ended up supporting the legislative effort to get rid of the rules, and ultimately the Trump administration acted.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Stephanie Thomas into this conversation, Houston-based organizer for Public Citizen. Your response to what’s happening right now in Crosby, to what the public has a right to know?
STEPHANIE THOMAS: Yes, Amy. Yesterday, I drove from Houston to Baytown, which is about 15 miles south of Crosby. And in that drive, I could see the plume of smoke coming toward that community. And people are very concerned about their health, about their well-being, whether the air that they’re breathing is really safe to breathe. And there’s this complication, because right now there’s also a lot of flooding that has happened in our area. So, even though they did evacuate the one-and-a-half-mile radius, there were people outside of that radius who were considering evacuating and weren’t sure if it was safe to do so, if the roads were going to be passable, because we still have a lot of water on the ground here. And I think another point of this is, it’s contributing a lot more concern about air quality. We already have seen a lot of reports to TCEQ, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, about emission events during the past week due to Hurricane Harvey. So people are very concerned about what they’re breathing in and whether—whether this is as safe as the officials are saying that—you know, that it’s safe. One—
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this issue of emergency responders, you have the sheriff’s deputies, 10 of them, went off to the hospital.
STEPHANIE THOMAS: That’s right. That’s right. But there have been other folks saying, “Well, it’s like a barbecue. You don’t want to breathe the air in, because it’s not good for you.” But they’re downplaying the safety of it. So, I think it’s really important for the community to find out what it is that they’re breathing. And I really want to commend Matt Dempsey for his work in trying to get those answers.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Matt Dempsey, you were able—first, you asked CEO Rowe of Arkema on the telephone. He said he wasn’t going to give you the information. Then you sort of got a little info dump from the company. What changed in that amount of time? And what would you say to people now, given the information that we know?
MATT DEMPSEY: So, what the—the only thing I can think of that changed is there was a lot of attention to the presser that—where they said they wouldn’t provide it. And then, I believe—so, the other thing about the info dump that I got, that just list of chemical names, like 29 chemical names, and that’s all it is, right? That was—I sent a very angry email asking where—why did I not get the Tier II? And their response was that the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality has informed them that all requests for the Tier II should go through them. The interesting thing about that is that means we probably won’t get access to that Tier II ever, because when Greg Abbott—now-Governor Greg Abbott—was then attorney general, his office issued a ruling that said that people don’t have the right to access Tier IIs from the state. So, now, the state is telling a private company, Arkema, to ask the state for information that they know they are not going to provide. It’s really incredibly frustrating.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, your knowledge, Matt Dempsey, of the Texas delegation, the congressional delegation, that got money and was lobbied by Arkema to exempt them from these right-to-know laws?
MATT DEMPSEY: Yeah, so, I thought David’s piece was really excellent, but I do want to point something out. I don’t think it’s a hard push to convince politicians in the state of Texas to do what the chemical industry wants them to do. Like, for example, there was a lot of focus on the Republican delegation from Texas. Democrats haven’t done very much, either. Like, there’s been very few bills proposed by Democrats in Texas or in the Ship Channel or in the Houston metro area or along this petrochemical capital of the country, from either party, on increasing or strengthening right-to-know laws. The stuff that—the information—the rules that David was bringing up, that was done by President Obama as an executive order after the West incident. And the American Chemistry Council is extremely powerful. They basically call the shots when it comes to what people get to know and how the chemical industry is regulated. Like, a really good example is it took decades for the Toxic Substance Control Act to finally get passed. And in a lot of ways, it only passed because Frank Lautenberg died, and they met—his colleagues in Congress felt bad that they hadn’t passed it up to that point.
AMY GOODMAN: The New Jersey senator.
MATT DEMPSEY: Yeah, right. So, even then, thought, the only version of the Toxic Substance Control Act, which is more about consumer substance—effects by those substances—the only version of it that passed through Congress and got signed into law is the one that the American Chemistry Council essentially approved of.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more, David Sirota, about the role of Scott Pruitt—Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency—when it came to what the public has a right to know? And, of course, we’re seeing it playing out right now with—for example, in Crosby, with the company Arkema.
DAVID SIROTA: Sure. Scott Pruitt, when he weighed in on the proposed safety rules that we’re discussing, as attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt made an argument that many attorney generals who were opposed to these rules in the states, that they were arguing, as well. And that argument was, essentially, that the expanded mandates for the public’s right to know, the expanded mandates for those, would threaten national security by allowing the bad guys—basically, terrorists—to know where dangerous chemicals are. So they were basically arguing, by allowing the community to know where potentially hazardous, poisonous material is, both in normal practice and even during and after a catastrophe or a crisis, that even allowing the public to know would potentially empower terrorists to know that information and organize attacks, potentially, on those chemical plants, and that—so, thereby, their argument was, Scott Pruitt’s argument was, that allowing the public to know would be an undue risk for national security. And he said that the rules should be withdrawn.
Now, the other side of the argument was, of course, that the public should have a right to know about the chemical compounds in its communities, especially when it comes to emergency situations. But, ultimately, the Scott Pruitt side won out, because he went on from Oklahoma attorney general to become the EPA administrator who eventually and ultimately delayed and, effectively, at least for now, killed those rules.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, Matt—talk about the record of Arkema over the years.
MATT DEMPSEY: So, the Arkema facility, in 2011 and, I believe it was, 2015, was cited by TCEQ for—essentially, for a fire that started with organic peroxides in 2011 and, I believe, in 2016 for not being able to control the temperature in a reactor very well. And then, last August, the—OSHA has fined them tens of thousands of dollars for mishandling—having, essentially, process safety violations for hazardous materials. They were mishandling hazardous materials.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking about the Arkema plant in Crosby. I want to go to a clip of the local CEO. But before I do that, I just wanted to ask, in terms of circumstances on the ground for—Matt, how are you doing? How—is your house flooded? How is it to work under these circumstances?
MATT DEMPSEY: Right. We are—my family is incredibly fortunate. Though our neighborhood got flooded, we had water in the street in a lot of areas, and some houses got flooded near us, but the water never got up to like our driveway or over the curb near our house. So I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate. And actually, I feel a little bit of survivor guilt, because so many other people have been impacted so strongly by the floods. It’s a little easier to get around now. But when you’re driving around, just even getting to the studio today, you see just people starting to already gut out their homes and doing demolition. And you see sandbags out still. And there’s debris all over the roads still. It’s really hard. Even though Houston has had three major flooding events in the last three years, it’s still really—this is different. It’s a different kind. I’m from Phoenix. And when I moved here three years ago, every subsequent flood event that we had up to this point, people used to say, “Oh, it’s not as bad as Tropical Storm Allison.” No one’s saying that anymore, in a not good way. It’s rough. It’s really rough.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Stephanie, what about you?
STEPHANIE THOMAS: Yeah, I am, likewise, lucky that my house did not experience any flooding. We just had some minor damage with some water coming in through the roof. But I live not too far from Buffalo Bayou, which is one of the—one of the bayous going through town. And, you may be aware, Houston has no zoning. And our neighborhood actually has some industry smattered amongst it. And I was taking a walk along the bayou and encountered a spill coming out of one of the facilities into the water, into the Buffalo Bayou. And I’m noticing that there’s been several of these small events happening locally, too, as well as these big events like the Arkema chemical fire.
MATT DEMPSEY: And actually, you know, that brings up a good point. So, the analysis we did for “Chemical Breakdown” showed that there’s a number of facilities—we essentially made an index that ranked facilities on their potential for harm. And we had like 55 facilities that were like the highest potential for harm. I’m doing a really shortcut version of this, but my really, really quick and dirty analysis, that I need to go into more detail on, that I did yesterday, showed that there’s 13 of those 55 are in the 100-year floodplain. We’re way past the 100-year floodplain with this flood. In fact, Arkema was in the 500-year floodplain.
So, one of the things that I want to do as a reporter, going forward, is find out just how many of these facilities that have highly potentially dangerous chemicals got impacted by this flood, and we just haven’t heard about it. There’s a lot—there’s more than 2,500 chemical facilities in Houston. They’re all shut down due to the flooding, and they’re all going to start up soon. The Chemical Safety Board sent out a safety alert yesterday warning companies to be extra careful and make sure they’re doing their due diligence on doing startups, because startup and shutdowns is when most incidents occur. And so, I am genuinely worried, both from an environmental perspective and from a public safety, like, and a hazard perspective, like Arkema, you know, what’s going to happen when all of these facilities all spin up all at the same time, after encountering, essentially, like biblical-proportion flood.
STEPHANIE THOMAS: Yeah, and along with that, a lot of the advocacy work that I’ve been involved with, alongside many other really wonderful organizations in Houston, we have focused a lot on the Ship Channel. And Arkema is actually not really directly in our focus, because it’s further back. But I think we’re finding a new normal, where these incredible rainfall amounts—I mean, there was about 42 inches, I think, in Mont Belvieu, which is close to Crosby. These are just phenomenal rates of rainfall within short periods of time. So, when people in industry consider risk management, I don’t know that they’re thinking about risk management in that kind of way, in terms of the amount of rainfall that they’re experiencing. This is a whole new ballgame, and people need to start thinking about things differently here.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Arkema President Richard Rennard, the president of the Arkema division, speaking on Thursday.
RICHARD RENNARD: I mean, it’s—I don’t know the composition of the smoke, but it’s certainly noxious.
REPORTER: And you’re not going to say that they’re nontoxic, correct? You’re going to say they’re nontoxic, or you’re not. Yes or no?
RICHARD RENNARD: Um.
REPORTER: I think that’s—I think it’s a pretty important—it’s a pretty important—
RICHARD RENNARD: I mean, the smoke is noxious. I don’t—its toxicity is—yeah, it’s a relative thing.
AMY GOODMAN: The toxicity is a “relative thing.” Matt, we’re going to end with you on this point. This is after the explosions, after people are evacuated for a mile-and-a-half radius. Can you respond to what he has said?
MATT DEMPSEY: Well, in some way, in a weird like pedantic kind of way, he’s right. Toxicity is relative. So, the government does—measures like exposure rates for certain chemicals. And the way they measure it is like how much of a chemical will kill you, how much of a chemical will disable you so you cannot get away to help yourself, and then how much of a—how much of a material will be very uncomfortable—you won’t like it, but you won’t—you’ll be able to get away, you’ll be able to remove yourself from the situation. So toxicity is relative. But it’s kind of nonsense to say toxicity is relative, and not explain how toxic then. It’s almost like a joke. So, it’s toxic. Well, how toxic? Even though he won’t say that it’s toxic.
So, my thought, honestly, from what I know of the stuff that’s burning, the organic peroxides, is that it’s more likely that we’re experiencing exposure levels on that last part, that it’s irritating, it’s uncomfortable, it will affect people with cardiovascular disease or asthma, but it’s something you could probably escape from. You can get to your home. You can shelter in place, if you needed to. But—
AMY GOODMAN: Matt, very quickly—
MATT DEMPSEY: Like I said—yeah, go ahead. I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you—do you expect more explosions at the plant?
MATT DEMPSEY: Oh, absolutely. The company has said that. The company has said they expect all eight of those freezer trailers, that each have 32,000 pounds of organic peroxides, to explode in the coming days.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Matt Dempsey, thanks so much for being with us, lead reporter for the Houston Chronicle series, “Chemical Breakdown,” which investigated regulatory failures of the chemical industry. Stephanie Thomas, Houston-based organizer for Public Citizen—both speaking to us from Houston, the Petro Metro. And, David Sirota, of the International Business Times, we’ll link to your piece, as well, “Texas Republicans Helped Chemical Plant That Exploded Lobby Against Safety Rules.”
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll be speaking with the head of Greenpeace here in the U.S. Stay with us.