A grand jury in Houston indicted Arkema and two of its executives Friday on criminal charges that they “recklessly” failed to prevent fires and releases from a chemical plant near Houston last year during catastrophic flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey.
Reactive organic peroxides decomposed and caught fire after floodwaters knocked out power and disabled refrigeration at Arkema’s Crosby, Texas, plant. The chemicals must be kept cool to remain stable.
In addition to the company, the indictment names Richard Rowe, CEO of Arkema’s North America operations, as well as plant manager Leslie Comardelle. If convicted, Arkema could face $1 million in fines and the executives could face five years in prison.
“Companies don’t make decisions, people do,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, whose office sought the indictment, said in a statement. “Responsibility for pursuing profit over the health of innocent people rests with the leadership of Arkema.”
The defendants’ attorneys said the indictment has no legal, factual, or historical basis. Prosecuting a company for the impacts of an unprecedented natural disaster for which local officials weren’t prepared “would set an ominous precedent,” Rusty Hardin, Arkema’s attorney, said in a statement.
Rowe’s attorneys, Tim Johnson and Nick Dickerson, said that “while Mr. Rowe proudly leads the women and men who are the Arkema family, acts of God are outside of his domain.”
Comardelle and his crew “acted heroically, working around the clock throughout the storm, trying to protect the plant and the public,” said his attorneys, Paul Nugent and Heather Peterson.
“The prosecutor’s decision to pursue this course of action is discouraging and sets an alarming and unreasonable precedent of seeking to hold people responsible for acts of nature,” said the chemical industry group American Chemistry Council in a statement.
About 2 meters of floodwater shut down the plant’s power and refrigeration in late August of 2017, putting nearly 159,000 kg of organic peroxides at risk of catching fire. Workers moved chemicals to nine refrigerated trailers, but three trailers ignited and Arkema eventually burned the others to end the emergency. The release caused 21 people to seek medical care.
The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board concluded in May that while Arkema had safety systems, “all of these layers of protection failed” due to flooding. The board called industry guidelines on flooding inadequate and warned that companies must plan for more frequent extreme rainfall and other weather events due to climate change.
“These potential prison sentences and fines should spur Arkema and other chemical companies to develop and maintain robust contingency plans in anticipation of natural disasters,” said Bay Scoggin, state director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group, an environmental advocacy organization. “Without responsible planning, we could again end up with tragic consequences for brave first responders and people who happen to live close by.”
The next court hearing in the criminal case is scheduled for Oct. 22. First responders, Harris and Liberty Counties, and residents of the area around the plant have filed civil suits against the company.
BP also faced criminal charges for a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured nearly 200 others at its Texas City refinery. It wound up paying a $50 million fine for violating the Clean Air Act. That was the last time a chemical company faced criminal charges for an incident in Texas, the Houston Chronicle reports.