HARRIS COUNTY – County Attorney Vince Ryan has filed a lawsuit against Arkema Inc. Ryan indicated that the county would “seek the highest penalties possible for what happened and hopefully work with them to make sure that it never happens again.”
Shortly after Hurricane Harvey, the organic peroxides stored at the Arkema plant were going to explode after the plant was flooded, lost power, generators flooded, and backup generators were little more elevated than the regular generators, so they were knocked out by water, too.
In an effort to mitigate the fallout from the impending explosions, Arkema employees informed authorities of the situation. The National Guard cleared everyone in a 1.5-mile radius from the area. From there, first responders remained on the perimeter of the plant, and when the organic peroxide did begin to explode, the first responders got sick, with some collapsing in the road from exposure to invisible fumes.
Within a week of the incident, a couple dozen of first responders filed a lawsuit in Harris County District Court, and others living nearby joined.
Harris County Commissioners Court approved plans to file a lawsuit in civil court against Arkema for creating a public nuisance and keeping first responders that were needed elsewhere occupied dealing with the Crosby plant.
For local residents, there was nowhere to find out what potentially the air quality would be from the explosions. Arkema had indicated to state authorities that 11 contaminants had been released. Later it was learned that isobutylene was about 40 yards from six of the trailers that were designated to blowup creating a potentially catastrophic situation that locals were not told about.
Authorities thought that a contingency plan other than calling the local fire department seems reasonable for a plant operating inside the flood plan that had changed since 2007.
Arkema Inc. officials stated, “Many of your conclusions fail to recognize that Hurricane Harvey was unlike any rain event Houston has ever experienced.”
The county’s suit will contend it was common knowledge for a week or more before the storm hit that Harris County could get as much as 50 inches of rain from Harvey.
Harris County has gotten three major floods in the past two years, all indicating that Arkema officials could have expected flooding and have known to develop plans for contingency.
But, Harris County had incidents of lack of preparation, too, including the first mid-storm releases of water from Addicks and Barker reservoirs. But the unpredictable nature of the storm doesn’t change how serious the situation was, since the plan was to just detonate the chemicals before they exploded in a more spontaneous fashion. Arkema officials had dealt with these same materials igniting before in a 2006 fire at the plant, and there were other chemicals stored at the site that were also dangerous. Ryan said his team wants Arkema to pay back the county for the county’s response. Ryan wants improved safety plans with legal enforcement.
The complaint filed by Harris County Attorney’s Office specifically lists sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, which can cause breathing problems and premature death in people with heart or lung conditions according to a release from the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We hope it is not as bad as we think,” Ryan continued, “Evidently, they did a poor job of preparation and we would hope they would have had a more robust response to such an event.”