Owner of Texas Chemical Plant Charged Over Fire

A plume of smoke rises from a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company on March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

HOUSTON (CN)—Texas prosecutors filed criminal charges against the company whose petrochemical storage tanks at its Houston plant caught fire and burned for four days straight last month, emitting toxic runoff that polluted a Galveston Bay tributary.

Intercontinental Terminals Company faces up to $500,000 in fines if convicted of the five misdemeanor water pollution charges brought Monday by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.

A fire erupted on March 17 at ITC’s plant in Deer Park – a blue-collar town, population 33,000, 21 miles east of Houston – and raged for four days, damaging 11 storage tanks before it was put out by firefighters who doused it in foam.

A dike ITC built to stop benzene-laced foam from polluting Tucker Bayou, which flows into the Houston Ship Channel, broke and the U.S. Coast Guard closed the Ship Channel for three days as the chemicals were skimmed out to stop them from floating downstream to Galveston Bay.

The “water pollution in Tucker Bayou was at criminal levels from March 17 through March 21” and more charges could be coming, Ogg’s office said in a statement Monday.

Environmental Crimes Division Chief prosecutor Alex Forrest said, “We are looking forward to reviewing the reports of other local and federal agencies, as they complete their investigations, so that we can determine if other charges will follow.”

In addition to the criminal charges, ITC is facing a lawsuit from the state of Texas and Harris County, and class actions from residents who claim they suffered breathing problems, headaches, burning eyes and nosebleeds from breathing in the carcinogen-laden smoke.

As the chemical tanks burned, Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner said the fire was so big it had altered wind patterns, just as massive wildfires do, and caused hazy skies as far as the city of Bryan, 100 miles northwest of Houston.

The ITC fire brought flashbacks to August 2017 for Houstonians, when Hurricane Harvey knocked out power at a plant 30 miles northeast of downtown, causing chemical compounds to burst into flames and sending first responders who breathed in the smoke to the emergency room.

A Harris County grand jury on April 10 indicted the plant owner Arkema Inc., a subsidiary of the French company Arkema S.A., and its vice president of logistics Mike Keough, on felony assault charges that they injured two sheriff’s deputies by withholding information about toxic fumes released in the August 2017 incident.

Ogg recently said she is cracking down on plant operators, who she believes deserve more punishment than civil fines.

Another Harris County grand jury indicted Arkema’s CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle in August 2018, alleging they “recklessly caused the emission of an air contaminant” the year before. They could be fined up to $1 million and imprisoned for five years if found guilty of the felony charges.

Trial in that case is tentatively set for May 20.

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