Houston Residents Near Chemical Plant Remain Under Health Advisory A month after a Houston chemical plant flooded and caught fire, nearby residents are still under a health advisory. Multiple investigations are looking into what went wrong.
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Houston Residents Near Chemical Plant Remain Under Health Advisory

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Houston Residents Near Chemical Plant Remain Under Health Advisory

Houston Residents Near Chemical Plant Remain Under Health Advisory

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And more than a month after Hurricane Harvey, there are still questions about a flooded chemical plant that caught fire near Houston. Environmental regulators are still investigating. And now nearby residents have joined a lawsuit against the company that owns it. Travis Bubenik of Houston Public Media has this update.

TRAVIS BUBENIK, BYLINE: In the flood-ravaged neighborhood near the plant, driveways are still lined with ruined furniture. Philip Mincey's home was among those flooded during Harvey. But the trouble didn't stop there. As the waters rose, chemicals at the Arkema plant were at risk of exploding. Authorities ordered Mincey and his neighbors to leave.

PHILIP MINCEY: They made it sound like it was blowing up right then. So everybody was trying to save their stuff and wasn't given the opportunity to.

BUBENIK: Some nearby residents and first responders are now suing Arkema. They claim they got sick from toxic fumes the company didn't warn them about. People here are still being told to drink only bottled water and wear protective clothing as pollution monitoring continues. Lawyers handling the case wouldn't make the plaintiffs available for an interview, but they're seeking more than a million dollars in damages. Mincey is not part of the lawsuit.

MINCEY: For me, money is not the end-of-the-day issue. I want them to help me out a little bit, but I want to feel like they're sorry.

BUBENIK: In a statement, Arkema says it will, quote, "vigorously defend against a lawsuit that we believe is gravely mistaken," end quote. The company insists it's been working to get locals affected by the evacuation the help they need, though Mincey says they've been hard to reach. Even before the fires started, during Harvey, Arkema's CEO Rich Rowe did have a message.

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RICH ROWE: I apologize. We apologize.

BUBENIK: He told reporters his company hadn't planned for such intense flooding.

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ROWE: No one anticipated we'd be looking at a site with 6 feet of water on it.

BUBENIK: Nearby resident Philip Mincey gets that. But still...

MINCEY: They didn't think they were going to 6 foot of water. But what are they going to do about it next time?

BUBENIK: Multiple agencies are now looking into how the company dealt with the incident. State regulators are investigating any possible impacts from the fires and looking into whether the company violated pollution rules. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is also investigating, and the Environmental Protection Agency is demanding Arkema hand over more details about the plant. That includes everything from how chemicals are stored there to how the plant's safety and power systems operate. In the days after Harvey, EPA Chief Scott Pruitt told the ABC News podcast "Powerhouse Politics" he had personally looked at the company's risk management plan.

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ROWE: I pulled that RMP, and I looked at what the requirements of the risk management plan required. And we've begun asking questions. Did they do that? Did they have adequate generation support? Did they have redundancy with respect to those trailers that blew up? We don't know yet. There's some concern that they didn't.

ELENA CRAFT: I think we're in a new reality in terms of the frequency and intensity of these storms.

BUBENIK: Elena Craft with the Environmental Defense Fund argues Harvey shows the need for stricter chemical safety rules that were proposed by the Obama administration but that Pruitt has since delayed. The rules would've required plants to disclose more about the chemicals they have on site. Critics said that would have let terrorists get access to sensitive information. At the University of Houston, chemical engineer Ramanan Krishnamoorti says the petrochemical industry handled Harvey pretty well. But the Arkema fires do reveal a bigger problem.

RAMANAN KRISHNAMOORTI: Where we have failed systematically has been in how we store chemicals. And almost every single incident that you've seen during Harvey and the flooding after Harvey has been associated with the storage of chemicals, not the production of chemicals.

BUBENIK: That, he says, is where the industry needs to turn its attention as it looks for lessons from Harvey's historic flooding. For NPR News, I'm Travis Bubenik in Houston.

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