One week after the first of nine trailers containing organic peroxides caught fire at an Arkema facility in Crosby, Texas, seven first responders have filed a lawsuit against the chemical company.
The Sept. 7 suit alleges that Arkema was negligent in failing to properly prepare for a power outage, which created dangerous conditions for storing flammable organic peroxides. Lack of refrigeration at the site, which was inundated with nearly 2 meters of water from Tropical Storm Harvey, caused the chemicals to degrade and explode. The suit alleges the first responders were exposed to unspecified “toxic fumes” early on Thursday, Aug. 31.
According to the Houston Chronicle, 15 Harris County deputies and eight emergency medical services personnel were hospitalized due to exposure to fumes. One of the plaintiffs in the case, Christy Graves, is the director of Harris County Emergency Services District 5, based in Crosby.
The first responders were guarding a 2.4 km perimeter around the Crosby site by taking up a position on a nearby road to prevent traffic from entering an evacuation zone set up by local safety officials, according to Kimberley M. Spurlock, the attorney representing the seven responders.
At roughly 2 AM, Spurlock tells C&EN, the responders became overwhelmed by fumes. They used emergency radios to ask about the status of the chemical plant but were told that no incident was reported. According to the suit, “one by one, the police officers and first responders began to fall ill in the middle of the road.” Medical personnel who responded to the scene, the suit continues, also became overwhelmed and began to vomit and gasp for air.
Around the same time that the first responders reported the effects of the fumes, the first of nine nonfunctioning refrigerated trailers containing organic peroxides caught fire. But Spurlock says it is not yet clear whether the alleged toxic fumes were emitted before or after the trailer ignited. Two additional trailers ignited on Sept. 1.
Spurlock says the first responders were not given personal protective equipment such as respirators and were not instructed to obtain any. The suit faults Arkema for “failing to provide accurate information” about hazards. The plaintiffs remain under doctors’ care. At least one was diagnosed with “chemical bronchitis,” Spurlock says.
In a statement, Arkema says it will “vigorously defend a lawsuit that we believe is gravely mistaken.” The company says its employees “did everything they could to protect the public” while fighting fast-rising flood waters. “We totally cooperated with all first responders and the numerous regulatory agencies working with us to keep the public safe,” Arkema says.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports it flew aircraft to test smoke from the Arkema fires from Aug. 30 to Sept. 7, using instruments that can measure 78 chemicals, including peroxides. The agency says it found no chemicals that exceeded short-term air quality values.
The incident at the Crosby site is under investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, and EPA. On Sept. 7, EPA ordered Arkema to provide a detailed timeline of events and respond to questions about handling of organic peroxides, the amount of the chemicals, and the measures the company took to guard against flooding and power outage. Arkema must respond to the request within 10 days.