HOUSTON (CN) — Texas sued chemical maker Arkema on Thursday for toxic flows from its plant outside Houston that forced hundreds of residents to flee their homes when Hurricane Harvey dumped record-breaking rains on Harris County.
The county and state asked the Harris County Court to order Arkema to underwrite the cleanup costs and pay fines, damages and costs of suit for the spills from its plant in Crosby, northeast of Houston. Two wastewater tanks there overflowed as Hurricane Harvey was dumping more than 50 inches of rain on Greater Houston.
“This was a very dangerous situation,” Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan said Thursday. “Arkema must take responsibility for its inability to ensure the safety of the people of the Crosby community.” More than 300 residents, and all Arkema employees at the plant had to be evacuated because of the spill.
“Rainwater accumulated in two wastewater tanks at the Facility until the tanks overflowed into their containment dikes, which subsequently also exceeded their capacity,” according to the complaint. “The wastewater contents thus mingled with floodwaters on the rest of the property.”
The chemicals also polluted the air, so the state and county seek damages for violations of the clean air and water acts. As the chemicals heated up, they were expected to ignite and explode — and they did.
Arkema president and CEO Rich Rowe said on Aug. 30 that the potential explosion was “nothing that would pose any long-term harm or impact” on the area. Early the next morning, two explosions at the plant spewed black smoke into the air.
More than a dozen sheriff’s officers were hospitalized from smoke inhalation, though nine of them drove themselves to a hospital “only as a precaution,” sheriff’s spokesman Jason Spencer said the day of the explosion. None suffered life-threatening injuries.
Seven first responders also sued Arkema on Sept. 7, saying it failed to warn them about the hazardous conditions and they breathed in the fumes.
“The scene was nothing less than chaos,” according the first responders said in the complaint in Harris County Court. “Police officers were doubled over vomiting unable to breathe. Medical personnel, in their attempts to provide assistance to the officers, became overwhelmed and they too began to vomit and gasp for air.”
Arkema said it was told that “the best course of action is to let the fire burn itself out” due to the chemicals’ volatility.
But Texas and Harris County say the explosions and subsequent chemical fires violated the Clean Air Act “because the emissions were from a source not authorized by a permit.”
The fires continued through Sept. 3, when Arkema, state agencies and the EPA executed a “controlled ignition of the material in six remaining trailers containing liquid organic peroxides,” according to the complaint.
Arkema could be fined more than $25,000 a day for violations of the Texas Water Code, Health and Safety Code, the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Administrative Code.
Harris County said in a statement that it will also ask the court to “require the company to upgrade its emergency response plans, construct hardened storage areas and establish a community notification system to alert residents of future dangers caused by the plant.”
Arkema told Courthouse News it was “disappointed” that the lawsuit was filed, in a statement through its Houston attorney Rusty Hardin.
“Suing a victim is never the right solution to a natural disaster,” Hardin said. “We are disappointed that this lawsuit was filed when we were in discussion with the county to cooperatively resolve the issues.”
Hardin said Arkema suffered from Hurricane Harvey just as millions of other Texans did.
“Arkema and its employees, like other business and individuals in Harris County, were victims of this storm,” he said. “Our plant is still not open. Our employees are still not back to work. Filing lawsuits is not the solution here. Arkema plans to continue cooperating with authorities, but we will strenuously defend against any and all unfounded claims.”
Arkema, based in France, reported revenue of 7.7 billion euros, or $9 billion, in 2014.