Texas Judge Rules for Workers Hurt in Weekend Blast

HOUSTON (CN) – Ten workers injured Saturday in a fiery explosion at a suburban Houston plastics plant won a temporary restraining order Monday forcing the plant owner not to tamper with a valve suspected of setting off the blast.

The explosion Saturday morning at the Kuraray America EVAL plastics plant in Pasadena, a stone’s throw from Galveston Bay near the Houston Ship Channel, burned 21 workers.

Nineteen of them were taken by ambulance to local hospitals, while two were airlifted by helicopter.

Local media reported Saturday night that none of their injuries are life-threatening, the fire had been extinguished, and emergency officials had not issued any shelter-in-place warnings for area residents.

Attorneys Benny Agosto and Muhammad Aziz with the Houston firm Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz represent 10 of the injured workers.

Representing the plant owner, Norton Rose Fulbright’s Brett Young argued Monday that an injunction is not needed now because inspectors with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board are already investigating at the plant.

“I agree in past cases Harris County Districts Courts have entered these early,” Young told Harris County District Court Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas at the civil courthouse in downtown Houston.

He added, “In other cases they’ve also said during the first phase of this, ‘Let’s just let the scope of the regulatory inspection work its way through the first few weeks, and then the parties will come back and agree on a long-standing protocol about what we’re going to do.’”

Smoots-Thomas granted the temporary restraining order after a 10-minute hearing and set a June 8 hearing to determine if it will be converted into a permanent injunction.

Aziz said after the hearing that his clients got what they wanted: Court jurisdiction over the accident inspection.

“I think it just gives us more control over the process because we don’t control what goes on between them and OSHA. We are not a party to that. This makes us a party to it,” he said.

Kuraray said in a statement Saturday it believes a faulty valve is to blame.

“Preliminary findings indicate a pressure safety valve released ethylene causing a flash fire in one of our process units,” the company said.

There were 266 people working at the plant when it was rocked by the explosion, and all of them have been accounted for, according to Kuraray.

Smoots-Thomas’ order mandates that Kuraray preserve all evidence relating to the accident, including photographs, videotapes, correspondence, emails, voice mail, text messages and cellphone records.

It also requires Kuraray to let Aziz, Agosto, and their firm’s investigators and expert consultants access the explosion site to take photographs and video.

The plant owner Kuraray America Inc. is a subsidiary of Tokyo-headquartered chemical maker Kuraray. Kuraray America, based in Houston, operates two other plastics plants in the Houston area.

The plant where the explosion took place opened in 1986. Already the world’s largest ethylene vinyl alcohol plant, an expansion expected to be finished before 2019 will increase its production capacity to 58,000 tons a year, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Ethylene vinyl alcohol is a plastic resin used to make food packaging, such as the plastic sleeves encasing cheese slices. It is also used in fuel tanks and home-heating pipes.

A Kuraray America spokeswoman did not immediately respond Monday when asked when the plant will reopen, and if the explosion affected operations at its other two Houston-area plants.

Another worker injured in the explosion sued Kuraray America and two staffing firms—Force Corporation and Industrial Solutions Inc. – in Harris County District Court on Sunday.

“Plaintiff was on top of a 25-foot high scaffold at the time of the explosion. As a result of the explosion and flames, plaintiff was burned significantly and was forced to jump 25 feet to the ground,” Eduardo Rodriguez says in his lawsuit.

Rodriguez seeks more than $1 million in punitive damages for his injuries, lost wages and medical expenses. He is represented by prominent Houston attorney Tony Buzbee.

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