Calling Harvey a natural disaster relieves us of responsibilty: it shouldn’t

It’s a knack, really, to take a perfectly awful situation and make it worse.

And while not even I would be so simplistic as to blame Donald Trump for the recent catastrophe in the Gulf states, Trump has made it worse and threatens to worsen the conditions that made this bad to begin with. The overheated compounds exploding at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, are one such instance.

Arkema stores, among other chemicals, something called liquid organic peroxides. Unlike organic carrots and organic hair-conditioner, the organic designation does not seem to be a selling point but merely a description. These peroxides, like ice cream, need to be kept cold; but unlike any ice cream I’ve ever had, tend to explode when the temperature rises. Even for something organic, this is not a good thing.

Of course Arkema planned for this possibility by keeping these peroxides cold, and further by having back-up generators to keep them just as cold if the lights went out. But upwards of 30 inches of rain put a crimp in those plans, and when the back-up generators flooded, there was no back-up for the back-up.

In all fairness the company planned for lots of bad stuff, but they didn’t plan for the worst. In addition Arkema was among many chemical companies that fought regulations issued by the Obama administration to tighten safety at facilities nationwide after that horrific blast at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 15 people in 2013.
In June Arkema got its wish: the Trump administration delayed enforcement of the regulations until at least early 2019. Arkema, along with many others, argued that the regulations were too costly and would jeopardize trade secrets. Again, in fairness the Obama-era regulations remain in effect and did not prevent this accident; however, a relaxing of restrictions practically guarantees further incidents in this hurricane- and flood-prone area where chemical plants proliferate in much the same way that Dunkin’ Donuts stores do in Connecticut.


Company executive Richard Rennard admitted in a press conference Thursday morning that the plant was emitting “noxious” smoke but became evasive about toxicity, making some allusion to the annoyance of breathing in smoke at a campfire. I got the point, but the reasoning was a bit specious; the analogy a bit facile. He insisted that this was not a chemical spill, but merely a fire. He was not offering to provide s’mores at that particular juncture.

And this is the problem. (No, not the s’mores.) Companies like Arkema will take the minimalist approach to self-regulation every time—it’s about money; and an anti-regulation administration like the one we have now will only exacerbate the problem. There are at least three others facilities in the region near Arkema that produce the same chemicals, and 500 or more other similar plants churning out items so lethal that, if they merely exploded, citizens living nearby would be fortunate. Workers, of course,  would not.

Sea-level rise, unabated building and paving near the coastline, a relaxing of restrictions with regard to practically all environmental concerns—we are practically ensuring more and more destructive storms. And with an EPA leader bent on destroying the agency he has been chosen to lead, there’ll be more and more pseudo-campfires and loud noises to come, the result of compounds that will remind us less and less of ice cream.

Or s’mores.

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