U.S. regulator probes Arkema's safety practices after Texas fires

FILE PHOTO: A fire burns at the flooded plant of French chemical maker Arkema SA after Tropical Storm Harvey passed in Crosby, Texas, U.S. August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo/File Photo (Reuters)

By Emily Flitter HOUSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether chemical maker Arkema SA followed safety rules at its Crosby, Texas, plant where chemical containers exploded and burned for days after flooding from Hurricane Harvey, an EPA official said on Monday. The EPA sent Arkema a letter asking for information that would help the agency determine whether the plant had followed chemical accident prevention rules and other parts of the Clean Air Act, according to a copy of the letter provided to Reuters by the EPA official, who did not want to be named. Containers holding volatile organic chemicals ignited on Aug. 31, after flooding from Harvey knocked out power to the plant. Arkema's North America chief executive had warned there was no way to prevent them from igniting after the plant's cooling systems shut and its workers evacuated. "We warned the public well in advance that fires would occur and of the danger of breathing the smoke from the fires at our site," Arkema spokeswoman Janet Smith said in an email to Reuters on Monday. "We pleaded with the public, for their own safety, to respect the 1.5-mile evacuation zone imposed by the unified command well prior to any fire." Smith said "a number of government agencies" were investigating the plant and the company was fully cooperating. The Sept. 7 letter, from the EPA's Enforcement Division director, Cheryl Seager, said the company had 10 days after receiving it to comply with the agency's request. She said the EPA could use what it received in an "administrative, civil or criminal action." Containers at the plant, which each held around 500,000 pounds of organic peroxides, burned for days, leading the plant's operators to evacuate the area around the plant and carry out a controlled burn of the remaining chemicals that had not yet ignited on their own. Police and firefighters who responded to the fires are suing Arkema in a Texas county court, claiming negligence led to the fires and caused the first responders "serious bodily injuries" when they inhaled smoke. The first responders filed their lawsuit the same day that Seager sent her letter. "We deeply regret that anyone suffered harm as a result of the havoc wreaked on our plant by Hurricane Harvey," the company said in a statement in response to the lawsuit. The EPA is also testing areas around the plant for pollutants. It announced on Saturday it had not found any volatile chemicals in water runoff samples collected from the plant. (Reporting by Emily Flitter; Editing by Andrew Hay and Leslie Adler)