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Texas chemical company senior executives face prison terms over Hurricane Harvey toxic chemicals release

06 August 2018

A grand jury has indicted a chemical manufacturer and two of its senior executives, charging them with “recklessly” releasing a toxic cloud of chemicals during Hurricane Harvey. The Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, was flooded after a week of intense rain from the hurricane in August 2017, which caused a number of fires, explosions and chemical releases on the site.

Image from CSB animation of Arkema plant incident
Image from CSB animation of Arkema plant incident

This led to the forced evacuation of 200 residents nearby and 21 people, including first responders, were treated for injuries, mainly from the inhalation of toxic chemicals.

The company, Arkema North America, its chief executive, Richard Rowe, and the manager of the Crosby plant, Leslie Comardelle, were all indicted, according to a statement from Kim Ogg, the district attorney in Harris County. They were each charged with reckless emission of air contaminant and endangerment of persons under the Texas Water Code.

The charges brought in the August 3 indictment carry a penalty of up to five years in prison for each person and up to a $1 million fine for Arkema, Ogg said in the statement.

“Companies don’t make decisions, people do,” the district attorney said. “Responsibility for pursuing profit over the health of innocent people rests with the leadership of Arkema.”

The indictment charged that they all had a role in the chemical releases, which risked serious harm to residents and emergency responders. Prosecutors maintain the releases were preventable.

The Crosby plant manufactured organic peroxides that had to be kept below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees C) to keep them from decomposing and catching fire, but temperatures increased after floodwaters knocked out power to the site. As a result, the chemicals exploded on August 31 and September 1, 2017, sending columns of toxic smoke into the air.

Arkema called the charges "astonishing" based on the conclusions from a report by the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) in late May.

"These criminal charges are astonishing, especially since the US Chemical Safety Board concluded that Arkema behaved responsibly," Arkema spokesperson Janet Smith said in a statement to Houston ABC station KTRK. "At the end of its eight-month investigation, the Chemical Safety Board noted that Hurricane Harvey was the most significant rainfall event in US history, an Act of God that never before has been seen in this country."

The CSB panel found there was a lack of planning for how severe weather events like the unprecedented rain during Hurricane Harvey could affect facilities that store chemicals and that even though Arkema had emergency generators and other backup systems "all of these layers of protection failed due to flooding."

Smith said in a statement to ABC News in May after the release of the CSB report: "Arkema is pleased that after an eight-month-long investigation, the Chemical Safety Board report accurately depicts the unforeseeable nature of the situation Arkema faced during Hurricane Harvey."

A lawyer for Arkema North America, Rusty Hardin, said the indictment was unprecedented, adding that the company and its workers were victims of the hurricane as much as everyone else in the county.

“All the experts agreed this was an act of God of biblical proportions, never before seen and never anticipated by anyone,” Mr. Hardin said. “It would set an ominous precedent if a company could be held criminally liable for impact suffered as a result of the historic flooding of Hurricane Harvey that no one, including Harris County itself, was prepared for.”

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