ThinkProgress

First responders sue owners of Houston-area chemical plant for ‘severe bodily injuries’

Smoke rises from a chemical plant owned by Arkema Inc. in Crosby, near Houston, Texas, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. CREDIT: KTRK via AP

Seven first responders filed a lawsuit Thursday against Arkema Inc., the owner of a chemical plant near Houston, Texas that was damaged by Hurricane Harvey. The suit alleges that the plant owner’s negligence caused the responders “severe bodily injuries.”

The plaintiffs, who include police officers and medical personnel, accused Arkema Inc. of neglecting to secure trailers of volatile chemicals susceptible to explosion after severe flooding knocked out the electricity and ability to cool the heat-sensitive chemicals.

The chemical plant in Crosby, Texas suffered two explosions early in the morning on August 31, after having lost power for days following Harvey’s landfall. The explosions sent black smoke into the air, forcing several first responders to the hospital following exposure to the smoke plume. At least 2 tons of highly unstable chemicals used in such products as plastics and paint burned at the site.

Arkema and its safety managers failed to adequately prepare for backup refrigeration of the chemicals at the plant in the event of a power outage, “an issue that Arkema has previously been cited for by governmental authorities,” the lawsuit says. Texas’ environmental commission cited the company at least three times for safety violations, totaling about $27,000 in fines, some of which was deferred pending corrective actions.

The lawsuit also notes that Arkema officials held press conferences where they repeatedly denied the chemicals were harmful to the public or first responders. “Plaintiffs relied on these representations and suffered serious bodily harm as a result,” the lawsuit alleges.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said 15 sheriff’s deputies were sent to the hospital on the morning of August 31, the Texas Tribune reported Thursday. The first responders fell ill in the middle of the road, the plaintiffs’ lawyers told reporters.

The plaintiffs are seeking more than $1 million, according to the suit filed in the District Court of Harris County, Texas.

“We reject any suggestion that we failed to warn of the danger of breathing the smoke from the fires at our site, or that we ever misled anyone,” Arkema said in a statement Thursday, according to the Houston Chronicle. “We will vigorously defend a lawsuit that we believe is gravely mistaken.”

The company has been criticized for its refusal to disclose certain chemical safety documents. Arkema Inc. CEO Richard Rowe, head of the French company’s North American operations, described the secrecy as an attempt “to balance the public’s right to know with the public’s right to be secure.” Chemical companies are notoriously opaque when it comes to sharing information about their chemicals with the public, and obtaining that information has become even more difficult in recent years, due to post-September 11 security measures meant to keep information about potentially explosive chemicals away from public view.

The Houston area experiences major rain events on a regular basis that cause major flooding to industrial facilities — although nothing on the scale of the rains associated with Hurricane Harvey. This has happened so many times before that most businesses and government agencies “have put in place physical structures and written procedures to prevent harm and damage to their properties and the people in their communities,” the first responders’ lawsuit says. “Arkema Inc. never heeded the warnings and ignored the foreseeable consequences of failing to prepare.”