AP NEWS

Arkema hit with new criminal charges in 2017 fire

April 10, 2019

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg on Wednesday announced new criminal charges against Arkema, the French chemical company whose Crosby plant caught fire and released toxic chemicals during Hurricane Harvey, as well as a top executive.

Ogg said at a news conference that a grand jury had indicted Arkema and its senior vice president for logistics, Michael Keough, with aggravated assault. Ogg said Keough was charged based on “misrepresentations he made that put deputies in harm’s way.” He said the company told emergency management officials that they had “real-time data monitoring” of tanks when in fact they did not..

“We asked the grand jury to return an indict against these individuals because too often in pollution cases… corporations are allowed to simply pay fines, and that does not change corporate behavior.”

The charges carries a prison sentence of 2 to 10 years in prison.

Last August, a Harris County grand jury indicted Arkema and two executives for the “reckless” release of toxic chemicals during Hurricane Harvey, which dumped record rainfall on the Houston area in 2017.

Arkema, CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle were charged 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. Their trial is scheduled to begin May 20.

Arkema called the criminal charges filed then “astonishing” and pledged to fight them vigorously.

Prosecutors are accusing Arkema of withholding key documents, as the company pushes for a speedy trial.

Federal documents stated that the company’s emergency plan provided little direction to employees on how to handle major floods, and as a result, it couldn’t keep combustible organic peroxides cool. Its main power transformers and backup generators were not high enough off the ground.

Arkema’s last line of defense failed when water inundated the fuel tanks that power freezer trucks. Over the next week, nine trailers of organic peroxides erupted in flames, sending pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke into the air. More than six first-responders were sickened, according to civil suits filed against the company.

The first fire started in the middle of the night of Aug. 31, 2017, with fumes from one trailer containing organic peroxides sweeping over the evacuation zone, where sheriff’s deputies were patrolling. Law-enforcement officers manning the perimeter and medical staff responding to the scene reported vomiting and gasping for breath, according to a civil lawsuit filed against Arkema by the first responders. In all, 23 people were briefly hospitalized.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigation said Arkema’s insurer at the time had warned the company of flood risks a year before Harvey hit.

But Arkema officials argue that unprecedented flooding made it impossible to prevent its chemicals from catching fire, and that no amount of planning could have protected its site from the storm.

Arkema is a French multinational company that manufactures chemicals used to create plastic products. Many of its proprietary compounds are organic peroxides, which must be kept at temperatures well below freezing to prevent the chemicals from catching fire.

The last time a chemical company faced criminal charges for a major incident in Texas was in 2005. BP paid $50 million in fines for an explosion at the Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured almost 200, but no one from the company served prison time.

perla.trevizo@chron.com