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"Chemical companies are notoriously opaque when it comes to sharing information about their chemicals with the public," notes Natasha Geiling of ThinkProgress.

"Chemical companies are notoriously opaque when it comes to sharing information about their chemicals with the public," notes Natasha Geiling of ThinkProgress. (Photo: Keri Blakinger/Twitter)

Downplaying Risks, Texas Sheriff Says Inhaling Chemical Plume Like 'Standing Over Campfire'

"Toxicity is a relative thing," said an Arkema executive

Jake Johnson

Following explosions Thursday morning at a Houston-area chemical plant, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez persistently downplayed the severity of the situation during a press briefing, and likened inhaling the smoke leaking from the facility to "standing over a burning campfire."

"The disastrous fire at Arkema this morning just goes to show the danger our community remains in for the days and weeks to come."
—Bryan Parras, Sierra Club
"It is not anything toxic, it's not anything we feel is a danger to the community at all," Gonzalez said of the fumes that sent ten of his deputies to the hospital.

Gonzalez went on to tell reporters that the explosions were "basically popping," and said that the "event has been expected and planned."

Despite Gonzalez's insistence that the plumes of black smoke emanating from the facility don't pose any threat to public safety, residents within a 1.5-mile radius of the Arkema plant—which produces organic peroxides—have been ordered to evacuate, and anyone who was exposed to the smoke has been encouraged to "seek medical advice."

When pressed by reporters, Arkema executive Richard Rennard refused to affirm Gonzalez's assertion that the fumes and smoke the plant is emitting are not toxic.

"Toxicity is a relative thing," Rennard said.

As Natasha Geiling of ThinkProgress notes, "chemical companies are notoriously opaque when it comes to sharing information about their chemicals with the public." 

The information that is public, though, suggests that over a million people could be impacted by a significant leak from the plant.

According to the Associated Press:

Arkema was required to develop and submit a risk management plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, because it has large amounts of sulfur dioxide, a toxic chemical, and methylpropene, a flammable gas. The plans are supposed to detail the effects of a potential release, evaluate worst-case scenarios and explain a company’s response.

In its most recently available submission from 2014, Arkema said potentially 1.1 million residents could be impacted over a distance of 23 miles (37 kilometers) in a worse case.

Scientists and green groups have long warned that the effects of an extreme rain event like Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas, the heart of the petrochemical industry, could be devastating to both the environment and public health.

On Thursday, Sierra Club published an interactive map of all the "toxic sites" in the Houston area.

"For decades, Houston has been home to an immense concentration of chemical and plastics plants, oil and gas refineries, Superfund sites, fossil fuel plants, and wastewater discharge treatment plants among others, threatening the surrounding communities," the group said in a statement. "Now, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the threat posed by these facilities has been magnified."

"The disastrous fire at Arkema this morning just goes to show the danger our community remains in for the days and weeks to come," concluded Sierra Club organizer Bryan Parras. "As the clouds clear and the sun returns, and we begin to think about rebuilding, we must ensure that the recovery is just and equitable, and ensures communities are not displaced nor threatened by these toxic sites ever again, no matter the weather."


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