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Chemical Firm, CEO Indicted Over Harvey Fires

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

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Chemical firm Arkema and two high-level company officials were indicted late last week by a Harris County, Texas, grand jury over a series of exposions and fires at its Crosby plant during Hurricane Harvey nearly a year ago.

According to the Harris County District Attorney’s office, Arkema CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle put residents and first responders at risk by not having proper safeguards in place.

What Happened

On Aug. 31 of last year, floods from Hurricane Harvey cut off all power sources to the Texas plant—eliminating crucial refrigeration for the chemicals such as organic peroxides.

Arkema fire
Images: CSB

Nearly a year after Hurricane Harvey triggered a series of explosions at an Arkema chemical plan in Crosby, Texas, a Harris County grand jury has indicted the company and two executives for the incident.

Officials at Arkema’s Crosby plant, which produces chemicals used in acrylic resins as well as PVC, fiberglass and other products, had warned that the lack of refrigeration would inevitably lead to explosions involving the peroxides, which must be refrigerated in order to remain stable.

After the first two explosions, Arkema said in a statement that it was in agreement with local public officials that letting the fire burn itself out was the best approach to the situation, as organic peroxides are extremely flammable. More than 200 residents living around the plant were evacuated, and the final remaining storage trailers were destroyed in controlled explosions Sept. 4.

The Investigation

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an investigative body that examines incidents involving chemical dangers in the country, released a report on the fire in May, which said that Arkema had a hurricane-readiness plan in place and employees followed procedure, but the plan did not take into account the “unprecedented” rainfall—up to 50 inches in a period of days around the Crosby area.

The CSB report noted that while Arkema had redundancies in its program for the protection of its organic peroxides, which must be kept refrigerated in order to slow decomposition and prevent blasts, the multiple layers of protection were all overcome by one common mode of failure: flooding. Power to the main refrigerated facilities, backup generators, a liquid-nitrogen cooling system and backup storage trailers were all rendered useless by the extreme flooding.

The investigation also found that Arkema’s flood insurance maps were not updated—they are not required to be by any regulation currently—and few onsite realized that the entirety of the plant was on either the 100- or 500-year flood plain according to 2007 map updates.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an investigative body that examines incidents involving chemical dangers in the country, released a report on the fire in May, which said that Arkema had a hurricane-readiness plan in place and employees followed procedure, but the plan did not take into account the “unprecedented” rainfall—up to 50 inches in a period of days around the Crosby area.

The report also notes that “at least 21 people were exposed to decomposition products and smoke from the burning refrigerated trailer and organic peroxides” as a result of the decision by the Unified Command at the site—under the direction of the local volunteer fire department and the county fire marshal—to allow traffic on nearby Highway 90 even as the area was evacuated.

The night of the first explosion, 15 deputies from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office were treated and released for nausea.

Lawsuits

Neighbors of the plant have sued, alleging that in the months after the incident, they have experienced nausea, respiratory problems and other symptoms as a result of the fires. Harris and Liberty counties have sued as well, with Harris County also opening a criminal investigation, which came to a head with the indictment last week.

"As the hurricane approached, Arkema was more concerned about production and profit than people," said Alexander Forrest, chief of the District Attorney's environmental crimes division.

Arkema called the criminal charges “astonishing,” and says it plans to fight them.

"There has never been an indictment like this in Texas or any other state," Arkema attorney Rusty 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."

The jury charged Arkema, Rowe and Comardelle with reckless emission of an air contaminant under the Texas Water Code. The charge carries a penalty of up to five years in prison for the individuals, and a fine of up to $1 million for the corporation.

   

Tagged categories: Arkema Inc.; Coatings raw materials manufacturers; Disasters; Explosions; Health and safety; Lawsuits; Safety

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (8/8/2018, 11:28 AM)

This will come down to a due diligence defense. Did Arkema do everything its peers would have reasonably expected to do to counteract the foreseeable impacts of a hurricane and did Hurricane Harvey create conditions beyond those that could be reasonably foreseen? It sounds like there was enough redundancy in the refrigeration system to say "yes" to the first part, so I think it will come down to whether the flooding by Hurricane Harvey was out of the ordinary. Considering Scientific American's look at Harvey seemed to indicate it was a highly unusual storm (I recall seeing an article on it back in 2017)...I don't know that the prosecutors are going to be able to make the grand jury indictment stick.


Comment from WAN MOHAMAD NOR WAN ABDUL RAHMAN, (8/9/2018, 2:06 AM)

This is the reality of living in this world today. For every disaster or tragedy there must be someone to take the blame. Because behind this there lots of compensation, claims to be made. Life goes on .


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