Fueled By Climate Change, Hurricanes Are Causing Industrial Accidents. Who's Liable?
So, you just got back from the Gulf coast where you were covering Hurricane Laura. How was your trip? The, hurricane damage was really bad. You know a lot of people down there have lost their homes, which is hard to see. Yeah and just to remind everybody Laura was the one that hit the Texas Louisiana border in August. This storm is clearly roaring. You're reaching that critical moment here. This now joins an elite group. It's in the top ten, a small elite group of the most dangerous hurricanes to ever make landfall into the US residents along the Gulf coast are bracing for potential devastation, Hurricane Lara and that area is so flat. It is so full of petrochemical facilities to their these refineries, a lot of new natural gas infrastructure, their chemical plants that manufacture all sorts of things like plastics and solvents actually even the raw materials for p. p. e., a lot of them are manufactured. Rubber gloves and surgical masks. So so what happened when the hurricane of hit all of that a lot of them shut down and when petrochemical facilities shutdown they usually release a lot of pollution right stuff that can't safely sit in pipes. So it has to be released or burn and preliminary estimates just in Texas showed that more than four million extra pounds of pollution were released. That was actually before the storm even made landfall. But the reason I wanted to talk to you is because one chemical plant caught fire because of the storm that is a look at I ten, which has now been shut down as these plumes of smoke emerged about an hour ago. The governor now is confirming this as a chemical fire has made an emergency crews responded to the inferno at via lab in Lake Charles which manufacturers pull supplies. Okay. So we've we've talked about this on the show before it didn't chemical plant in Texas catch fire after another hurricane Hurricane Harvey. Ago Yes and we talked about it on this very podcast because that fire in Texas started this totally new kind of legal battle, a climate change criminal lawsuit, and I have to say so far there is no indication that this most recent fire will lead to similar litigation but with this really active hurricane season that we're having in the super hot water in the Gulf of Mexico hoping spawn these strong. Storms head right for America's petrochemical centers I thought it might be a good moment to revisit that story and the questions that raises. So this episode, we're going to hear that story. It's a story that asks this question can companies and the people who work for them be held responsible, even sent to prison for failing to adequately prepare for climate change, you're listening to shortwave the daily science podcast from NPR. Okay Becky, take us back to the beginning of this story. So it's a story that happened in twenty seventeen at a chemical plant near Houston Texas, and it's when this major hurricane struck. We are coming on the air for breaking news. This is Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Harvey barreling into the Texas coastline as a category four storm with one hundred and thirty mile an hour winds. It's yeah, I remember. Hervey was kind of unique because it made landfall and then it just kind of stopped and sat on top of Texas, just dumping and Dumping Rain. Some places got as much as sixty inches of rain. There was a lot of flooding obviously, our primary layer of protection was our power supply. When the storm hit we lost our primary power. You're hearing a guy who is a division president at one of those petrochemical companies that was overwhelmed by the flooding. His name is Richard. Rendered the company he helped run it's called Arkham. We brought in emergency generators to provide backup power. So what he's describing his in the aftermath of the storm, those generators were compromised. There's this intense effort to keep the power on at the Arkansas plant outside Houston. The plant is near a major highway. It's in a relatively residential area. So why were they fighting so hard to keep the power on basically because the plant was full of chemicals that have to be refrigerated Otherwise they catch fire. We do have that breaking news that we've been bringing you throughout the five o'clock hour this brand new explosion and a fire burning. As we speak the Arkham plant in Crosby, you can see that plume of black smoke billowing into the air. In fact, you can see it for miles and miles away. So they make organic peroxides which are. Volatile Chemicals, they're used to manufacture plastics and other stuff and organic rock sides are pretty hazardous because they can catch fire if they get warm right and they don't even need a spark, right. So organic peroxides contain both fuel and oxygen and when they become unstable, they heat up on their own and catch fire. Yeah. I can really hear that PhD coming through. So the Arima plant, it had a lot of refrigerated warehouses and buildings to keep these chemicals cold, and they also have a bunch of refrigerated trailers outside those warehouses. Okay. So talk me through it. What happened that resulted in the accident so harvey was stalled over the Houston area, just dumping rain for days and the refrigerated warehouses, the buildings they were flooding as the warehouses flooded. The employees were using forklifts to move containers of these chemicals from one refrigerated warehouse to another to try to keep them dry and cool, and the water just kept getting higher and higher and the electrical generators for the buildings started. Flood that's not good and then the forklift flooded. Okay. So would you do when you're forklift floods? So according to the US chemical, Safety Board investigation employees at the plant started carrying individual jugs of these highly flammable liquids in the dark my chest high water while it was still raining to get it to the refrigerated trailers we talked about because only the trailer still had power. Yeah. I read this report and it was terrifying like I can't imagine being one of those people still there as they're in like deep water trying to move these chemicals at one point, one of the trailer started to turn over. On their side. It was really like super scary. Yeah and you might be able to guess what happens next the trailers flooded they weren't refrigerated anymore the chemicals got warmer and warmer until they caught fire. So did people get hurt when the fire started in the plant? Well, the plant had been evacuated. So the employees were okay that we know of but there were some first responders who say they were injured while they were patrolling the area that had been evacuated specifically that there is and respiratory tracts were urinated by air contamination and there were some people who live nearby who also say they were injured. By the smoke and the ash from the fires. So we knew the chemicals themselves can be toxic was the smoke from them toxic as well. That's a good question. So when the chemicals burned, they actually just turned into carbon dioxide and water, but I talked to multiple organic chemists and they explained that the problem is actually the containers that were being burned a chemist at Bryn Mawr. College Name Michelle Francis explained it this way everything from the labels on things to whatever plastic or metal that the containers are made out of all that stuff is GonNa absorb other chemicals that didn't burn entirely. So the ashes nasty. The ashes nasty so that ash is made up of container junk and chemicals that didn't totally burn. That's the stuff that potentially could have harmed the first responders and the people close by and it's not something you ideally want in the air or water right so much. So that in two thousand, eighteen, the district attorney's Office for Harris County Texas announced criminal charges against the plant manager who was actually one of the people carrying those chemicals through the water. And Armas North American CEO, and later they also filed charges against a third person and executive at the company which was really surprising to a lot of people because in general, the criminal courts aren't used to punish companies in their employees for polluting the air and water especially when it happens during big storms and I went down to Houston interviewed the district attorney about it. Her name is Kim Og-. The. Charges are environmental. They are reckless emission of an air contaminant and endangerment of persons. Reckless emissions of an air contaminant feels like a bunch of words that be polluting lawyers like. Big Words. So why did she say she was filing these charges you mentioned that there were a lot of petrochemical plants around Houston that flooded and leak stuff during Hurricane Harvey is there something about these fires that was worse? Yeah I asked her that and one argument she made is that the fires happened because people at Arkham ignored the risk of flooding like they should have known that their plant could flood like that and prepared better. For example, the plant is in a flood plain and even though Harvey dumped more rain than any US storm on record the argument the county is making. Is that there were signs that flood risk was increasing before harvey because of Climate Change we've had new normal in Houston. We've had three five hundred year floods in just a short period of time, and it's true that flooding is getting more frequent and severe in. Houston as it is in many parts of the country and something climate models have been predicting for a long time that extreme rain will get more likely as earth hotter including rain from hurricanes. So in this case, the county is basically arguing that the company had a responsibility to recognize that flood risk was increasing and do. More to keep their chemicals from catching fire. So obviously, the company doesn't agree or they wouldn't be in the middle of a trial right now what is the company say? So after the indictments for announced, I interviewed two of the layers representing Komo and its employees. One of them is pretty well known in Houston been working for a really long time. His name is Rusty Harden Arkham did everything they were supposed to do here hardened says the company followed all the regulations it's required to follow. He seemed pretty galled that employees were facing criminal charges trying to find scapegoats and calling individuals felons. Are you kidding me this is outrageous. It's morally legally ethically wrong and the point he made is that if the current regulations for chemical companies in flood prone areas aren't enough. Then the regulations should be changed by legislatures not by courts and especially he argues by criminal courts sometimes bad things happen that there's no crime. There's no responsibility is not anyone's fault we need to look forward to. The future and make sure that we are prepared for these kinds of things if this is going to be the new norm in many think it is. Okay. So becky, like what is at stake in this trial if the county wins and the company loses will that change how we think about climate change in the law it could actually yeah, I talked to this Guy David Omen he's. A law professor at the University of Michigan, and one thing he said that I think is really interesting is that environmental laws and regulations are generally based on this underlying assumption that the future will look like the past today. Already, we expect companies to be prepared to handle what I might call ordinary rainfall. What climate change is going to do among other things is change our definition of what is ordinary rainfall. Another way to understand it in a legal context is that you can be held accountable and punished. If you don't prepare for something, you should have seen coming. It's the idea of foreseeability so. Like if you know that climate change is happening, does that mean it's foreseeable and you should prepare for it yet that's the big question exactly and how foreseeable extreme weather is hinges in part on how businesses inform themselves about the climate science that's available to them, right? Yeah. Like I talked to an environmental lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation Alina Mehalle that foreseeability isn't just a question of did you personally know that this could happen but it's really what kind of maps were available to you. What kind of experts did you hire to inform yourself about this decision? What kind of modeling