To say the recent weather in Houston was extreme would be an understatement. Millions without water and power due to the extreme cold – a city stretched to its limits started to crack. As Chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board – the independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical incidents across the country – I could only watch in alarm as the epicenter of the United States’ oil and gas manufacturing was forced to shut down its operations due to the below freezing temperatures sweeping across the US.
Shutdowns and start-ups present great risk when it comes to facility operations. An expedited shutdown can result in unexpected and unusual situations. According to a 2010 study of incidents in the refining industry, 50 percent of process safety incidents occur during startups, shutdowns, and other events that infrequently occur. Furthermore, the majority of the CSB’s refinery investigations occurred during non-routine operations such as a shutdowns, turnarounds or start-ups. The situation in Texas was even more worrisome when you consider the extreme cold that workers were being forced to deal with during such high hazard operations.
The CSB is all too aware of the serious impact that extreme weather can have on the chemical and refining sector. In August 31, 2017, fires erupted at the Arkema Chemical Plant in Crosby, Texas, because of heavy rain from Hurricane Harvey. Plant equipment flooded and failed causing chemicals stored at the facility to decompose and burn, releasing fumes and smoke into the air. Twenty-one people sought medical attention from reported exposures to the fumes. More than 200 residents living near the facility were evacuated and could not return home for a week.
The CSB investigated the incident at the Arkema facility, ultimately finding a lack of industry guidance on planning for flooding or other severe weather events. The recent situation feels all too familiar. Right now, it is important that equipment and safeguards are fully functional before restarting plants that were forced to shut down.
Following Hurricane Harvey, facilities across the Houston area slowly restarted. Now, in 2021 we need to make sure no lives are needlessly claimed by an unwanted chemical incident and that there are not extended delays in the production of essential chemicals. Facilities should pay particular attention to process safety requirements during this critical period to assure a safe and expeditious return to operation. Equipment, tanks, and instrumentation should be thoroughly evaluated for damage prior to startup. The release of hazardous chemical tends to be a prevalent problem when restarting without fully inspecting equipment to ensure it was not damaged as a result of extreme weather.
The industry recognizes that start-ups require and must receive a higher level of attention and care than normal processing as numerous activities are occurring at once. Last week’s deep freeze will not be the last extreme weather event to impact the Houston area. Working together we can prevent the next catastrophic chemical incident caused by extreme weather, thereby protecting our communities, workers, and the environment.
News Release on Extreme Weather Safety Alert and Safety Message:
Extreme Weather Safety Message: