Chemical Safety in Extreme Environments

Hurricane Irma covering almost the entire state of Florida

Recently, over 90 percent of oil and 80 percent of natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico was shutdown due to Hurricane Nate.1 Just two months prior Hurricanes Harvey and Irma disrupted more than a third of the overall chemical production of the United States.2 Each of the hurricanes presented unique risks and challenges to maintaining chemical safety to any facility caught in their midst; some of the recent weather patterns threatened entire regions. Planning and preparing to protect the people, property, and environment that are in harm’s way become increasingly difficult when chemical plants are involved.

The Gulf Coasts experienced a number of hurricanes in the past couple of months, with areas ranging from Texas to Florida being affected. The catastrophic impact of Harvey alone, a Category 4 hurricane, has been felt from Texas to Tennessee.3 Some of the hardest hit parts of Texas and Louisiana are home to large numbers of chemical plants and refineries. Though the record breaking floods, and their effect on the communities, have demanded much of the national attention, the effects of extreme weather on chemical plants should not be ignored.

Chemical Safety Crisis

Sikes Disposal Pits Superfund site in Crosby, TX on April 6 (left) and August 31 (right)

Dozens of chemical facilities shut down operations to wait out the storm(s) and some of those that did not suffered catastrophic failures. Many of the companies that chose to shut down before the Hurricanes made landfall had to purge some of their unrecoverable raw materials into the ambient air to safely bring production to a halt. Dozens of chemical plants and Superfund sites have filed reports with their state governing agencies, documenting thousands of pounds of additional chemical releases from planned shutdowns or equipment failure.4 Non-standard operations at chemical facilities raise the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. For more information read our Dangers of Refinery Turnarounds article.

The final cost of the hurricane damage is yet unknown, but it is clear that the road to recovery will be a tough one. An analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund, Air Alliance Houston, and Public Citizen shows that in Texas, from August 23rd to the 30th, 46 facilities in 13 counties reported 4.6 million pounds of fugitive air emissions in excess of state limits.5 The amount of toxic chemicals released and the number of damaged chemical plants in the area only further complicate the recovery effort. The severity of the weather patterns rendered many of the chemical plants’ backup plans inoperable, causing uncertainty about chemical safety, business continuity, and adequate HazMat response. Chemical plants looking to restart operations must examine all equipment and inventory as well as replace the gas and weather sensors that they rely on to operate safely.

Chemical Incident Examined

Preparing chemical plants to survive extreme weather is no easy task, as winds and water present numerous challenges for chemical operators. With winds speeds in excess of 100+ MPH, any small object becomes a dangerous projectile, capable of dealing extreme damage to people and equipment alike. The combination of the sustained high-speed winds and record-breaking rainfall in the region precipitated disaster for anyone caught in their path.

The Arkema Crosby, TX plant is a perfect example of how quickly nature can render even the most thorough preparations ineffective. The Arkema plant produces liquid organic peroxides that are used in productions of polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC, polyester reinforced fiberglass, plastic, and acrylic resins.6 As widely reported by a number of news outlets Arkema’s Crosby facility lost power from the city grid during Hurricane Harvey requiring the use of their reserve generators. The electricity powered the refrigeration units used to keep the plant’s tanks of volatile organic compounds (VOC) from warming up and combusting.

Eventually, even the reserve generators succumbed to the rising floodwaters, causing the storage tanks to burst and the peroxides to ignite. Luckily, the Arkema employees and the surrounding communities could evacuate to safety before the chemical incident. Unfortunately, this incident was not without injuries, as twenty-one first responders on site were exposed to toxic smoke while they were manning an evacuation perimeter.5

Unplanned shutdown. Unplanned startup.

The most dangerous times at refineries and chemical plants is when they are being shut down or being brought back online. Especially when the shutdown was due to an emergency and therefore lacks the years of preparation that typically go into planned turn-arounds or shutdowns. Case in point is the roughly 1.3 million pounds of fugitive air emissions from a Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, Texas that was in the middle of a start-up. The plant has sixteen production units and an array of support facilities at its petrochemical complex and employs over 2,500 permanent and contract personnel.7 Although the plant operator shut down production ahead of Hurricane Harvey, as is the case with all non-standard operations, a start-up at the plant resulted in a very significant release.

Chemical exposures are common during chemical incidents, as few responders have readily available solutions for mobile ambient air monitoring or access to critical chemical safety facts. During large scale emergencies like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma the overloaded communications networks make it even harder to relay essential information or coordinate with other teams. Had the responders at the Arkema plant utilized mobile chemical sensors, either deployable or those worn on person, they could have been alerted to the potential toxic hazards before sustaining inhalation injuries. At the very least, first responders should be aware of the wind direction and wear protective equipment, if they need to work downwind of a chemical release or fire.

Restoring Chemical Production

What lies ahead for many of the chemical plants affected by the Hurricane is a careful and uncertain path to recovery. The week after Irma made landfall in south Florida there were still over 5 million customers without power in the states affected by Harvey and Irma.8,9 Restoring operations at chemical facilities involves solving a range of logistic challenges: dealing with lack of power from the city grid, flooded or wiped out roadways, replacing damaged equipment, and restoring operations safely while following chemical safety processes to prevent further incidents.

The immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

As facilities begin repairs to bring their chemical operations back online, they must monitor the ambient air to ensure a safe operating environment. Powering up after emergency shutdowns is especially dangerous. Increased methods of gas detection and additional chemical safety resources are encouraged as additional personnel are often present during maintenance and repair cycles. Replacing damaged weather and gas sensors as well as deploying new ones can be a logistical nightmare on a good day, let alone after a catastrophic event.

Organizations are cognizant of the fact that first responders are at full capacity helping communities recover and that monitoring for fugitive gas emissions is more important than ever. A chemical incident in an area suffering from damaged infrastructure and still reeling from the effects of the hurricanes could quickly snowball into a catastrophe. Replacing damaged gas and weather sensors to establish air quality monitoring in confined spaces and around the facility perimeter becomes a priority. A clear need is evident for an integrated real-time platform capable of monitoring current gas and weather sensors, as well as integrating additional sensors seamlessly as needed.

Safer Operation, Maintenance, and Recovery

The optimal approach to a chemical safety in and around chemical facilities revolves around integration, collaboration, and communication. This entails providing real-time weather and gas sensor data to cross functional teams to allow for greater coordination both internally and with surrounding communities. To reduce the logistical burden of implementing such a system chemical companies leverage experts like SAFER Systems. For over 35 years SAFER has provided chemical companies and HazMat response organizations a single point of contact for their monitoring, modeling, engineering, and hardware needs.

Integrated real-time solutions for chemical safety

SAFER customers in the Gulf Region maintained an accurate operating picture based on real-time weather and gas sensor data, even as shutdowns and employee evacuations were taking place due to inclement weather. Those customers with the SAFER One platform could leverage remote monitoring capabilities to reduce personnel presence on site without compromising their gas detection. In case of failure, companies can model the effects of the chemical incident based on sensor data and share critical chemical safety data with the responding incident commander.

Additionally, SAFER solutions allow for seamless mobile gas sensor integration into SAFER One and SAFER One HR platforms. This enables our customers to expand their air quality monitoring as needed, allowing additional levels of protection without the additional logistical burden. Whether you are looking to invest in your first gas detection system or enhance your existing gas detection solutions, SAFER Systems has you covered!

Questions? Call (805) 856-6977 or email to find out how you can operate safer today!


1 CNBC: Hurricane Nate shuts down about 90% of Gulf of Mexico oil production

2 Bloomberg: Harvey Disrupts More Than One Third of U.S. Chemical Production

3 Historic Hurricane Harvey’s Recap

4 CityLab: In the Aftermath of Harvey, Houston’s Chemical Plants Are Yet Another Threat

5 NY Times: More Than 40 Sites Released Hazardous Pollutants Because of Hurricane Harvey

6 Arkema Americas: Crosby, Texas production plant

7 Formosa Plastics: Our Operations – Point Comfort, Texas

8 CNBC: Texas utilities struggle to restore power as Harvey hampers progress

9 The Wall Street Journal: Herculean Task as Crews Race to Restore Power Cut by Irma

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