MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
We're going to revisit a community hit hard by Hurricane Harvey. Crosby, Texas, is home to a chemical plant owned by the company Arkema. After that plant lost power in the storm, trailers of unstable chemicals caught fire and burned for days. Some people who live in the community say they were hurt by those fires. And as NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports, they're suing.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Shannan Wheeler lives on the outskirts of Crosby. He likes to sit out front in the evenings. It's where we talked as the sun went down and the mosquitoes came out.
SHANNAN WHEELER: Usually in the evenings around here, we have a ground fog that comes in. It's really kind of pretty sometimes.
HERSHER: The house is 3 miles from the Arkema plant, about a 30-minute drive from the Houston suburb where Wheeler grew up.
WHEELER: I was born and raised in Baytown, so I grew up around five of the biggest petrochemical facilities on the planet. And with my family's history, I'm familiar with every one of them.
HERSHER: An uncle who worked at Chevron - his mom runs the local chamber of commerce. And Wheeler designs pipe systems for petrochemical plants. When the Arkema fire started burning, the evening fog smelled like something he'd only ever encountered at work when equipment leaked.
WHEELER: The first smell that I got smelled like battery acid. Something's wrong here.
HERSHER: The air hurt his throat. He noticed dew was leaving strange black residue in his flowerbeds. And then things got worse. A couple days later, he was at home when he heard a distant boom. The windows shook a little.
WHEELER: Directly over those trees right there to the east - thick, black column going up, and it was going pretty good.
HERSHER: Wheeler called Harris County 911 looking for information. The dispatcher told him all we know is the chemicals are burning on purpose. Arkema had deliberately ignited the remaining chemicals at the plant. Over the next few days, the putrid smell around his house mostly went away.
WHEELER: The following Saturday, I decided to go ahead and mow the yard because it was a week overdue anyway.
HERSHER: When he was done, he scooped up the clippings with his hands.
WHEELER: I was wearing gloves, but I noticed back behind the gauntlet of the glove up on my wrist and everything, it was starting to stain a little bit. And I looked, and I started noticing redness. And it was a slight swelling, but I noticed welts coming down along my wrists, down my thumbs, you know, on both of them - on both hands.
HERSHER: He rubbed baking soda on the welts. The next day, his local doctor diagnosed it as chemical dermatitis.
WHEELER: And sure enough, he said that's a chemical burn. And that's bad when you can't even cut your grass.
HERSHER: Wheeler blames the ash from the fire, but that doesn't square with the official version of what happened. Wheeler's house is way outside the evacuation zone for the plant. As the fires were burning, officials were saying it was safe there, like at this press conference by Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and the assistant fire marshal, Bob Royall.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
ED GONZALEZ: Arkema company officials and the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office have told us that exposure to smoke from these organic peroxides is similar to standing over a burning campfire.
BOB ROYALL: What does it mean for people's health? You don't want to stand in smoke, do you?
HERSHER: A spokesperson for Arkema wrote in an email to NPR, quote, "we reject any suggestion that Arkema failed to warn of the danger of breathing smoke from the fires at the Crosby plant." The EPA, Harris County district attorney and U.S. Chemical Safety Board are all investigating. Analyzing contaminants from big fires is hard under the best circumstances. It's extra difficult when they happened in the middle of a huge storm. But multiple organic chemist told me the chemicals that burned - they're called organic peroxides - are probably not the problem.
MICHELLE FRANCL: The peroxides turn out to be the easiest part of this whole thing.
HERSHER: Michelle Francl is an organic chemist and professor at Bryn Mawr College.
FRANCL: Peroxides, when they burn at the temperatures that they would burn in this kind of fire, turn into carbon dioxide and water.
HERSHER: But the containers for the chemicals and the refrigerated trailers where they were being stored - they burned, too.
FRANCL: Everything from the labels on things to whatever plastic or metal that the containers were made out of - all that stuff is going to turn into ash, and then it's going to absorb other chemicals that didn't burn entirely. So the ash is nasty.
HERSHER: Chemists warn that figuring out exactly what chemicals are in the ash can be really hard. But after the fires, local people got together to file a lawsuit alleging that the ash and smoke caused the rashes and respiratory problems suffered by Wheeler and others. Wheeler joined the lawsuit against Arkema even though he wants the company to stay in Crosby.
WHEELER: Running business and jobs and money out of town is completely foreign concept to me. So no, I don't want to get rid of Arkema.
HERSHER: But he does think that they owe the town something.
WHEELER: We want them to be accountable. That's what you do. You have a responsibility to the community.
HERSHER: He wants to force the company to plan and communicate better because, he says, this is the Gulf. There will be another storm. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.