French specialty chemical supplier Arkema SA says it will fight criminal charges against the company and its top managers after a Texas grand jury issued indictments related to a series of explosions and fires at its Houston area plant in 2017.
Flooding related to Hurricane Harvey inundated the Crosby, Texas, plant, leading to the Aug. 31 fires.
The Harris County grand jury issued a series of indictments Aug. 3, charging the company and two of its leaders — Arkema North America CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle — with playing a role in “recklessly” releasing toxic cloud into the air.
With the indictment, Arkema faces up to a $1 million fine while Rowe and Comardelle can face up to five years in prison.
“Companies don't make decisions, people do,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said. “Responsibility for pursuing profit over the health of innocent people rests with the leadership of Arkema.
“Indictments against corporations are rare,” Ogg said. “Those who poison our environment will be prosecuted when the evidence justifies it.”
“As the hurricane approached, Arkema was more concerned about production and profit than people,” added Alexander Forrest, chief of the Environmental Crimes Division at the Harris County District Attorney's Office.
Arkema's attorney, however, countered that Arkema had followed emergency procedures and took steps to protect the materials, but the flooding was worse than anyone had expected.
The explosions at the Crosby plant occurred after flooding cut power used to cool storage of some organic peroxides stored at the site, which exploded due to high temperatures.
Arkema officials described the decision by the jury as “outrageous,” saying it found it hard to believe “anyone would seek to criminalize the way in which one facility was impacted by such a crushing natural disaster.”
The French supplier also pointed to an eight-month investigation by U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which stated that the Crosby site had plans, procedures and multiple contingency measures to prevent loss of power and refrigeration.
Describing the hurricane as an “act of God”, the board also noted that the Arkema plant met “all requirements related to flood planning, and there simply are no requirements or guidance that would have been enough to prevent the incident in the face of such unexpected flooding.” “These criminal charges are astonishing, especially since the U.S. Chemical Safety Board concluded that Arkema behaved responsibly,” Arkema noted in its Aug. 3 statement.
At the end of its eight-month investigation, the Chemical Safety Board noted that Hurricane Harvey was the most significant rainfall event in U.S. history, an “Act of God” that never before has been seen in this country.
Arkema's attorney, Rusty Hardin, of Rusty Hardin & Associates, also issued a statement on the same day, saying there was no foundation for a criminal case against Arkema.
“The [Harris County District Attorney's] office has no legal precedent in Texas courts and there are no cases on point. And they chose to use this unprecedented charge for a tragedy. 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,” said Hardin.
In pursuing these charges against Arkema, said Hardin, “Harris County will have the daunting task of trying to prove that Arkema anticipated the possibility of 6 feet of floodwater and then decided not to prepare for it.”