ANGLETON, Tex. (CN) – More than 120 residents of a small Texas town claim in state court that Chevron and Phillips 66 knowingly flooded their community without warning after Hurricane Harvey.
The oil companies’ refinery in Sweeny, Texas flooded and suffered chemical leaks during the storm, according to the Monday lawsuit in Brazoria County Court. To prevent contamination from spreading further, Chevron and Phillips 66 decided to barricade the refinery and dam two nearby bayous, according to lead plaintiff Neal Bess Jr.
Harvey had already passed over the town, and its residents thought they had been spared the disastrous flooding that inundated Houston. The oil companies’ own experts warned that the dams would flood Sweeny, but Chevron and Phillips 66 made no effort to warn the town, the 121 plaintiffs says.
“The town thought it got through the worst of it, and that their families and friends were going to be fine,” the complaint states. “They were wrong.”
Sweeny, pop. 3,800, is 60 miles southwest of Houston and roughly 20 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The refinery is its major employer and a taxpayer.
Hurricane Harvey killed 83 people and caused an estimated $70 billion in property damage during the four days it ravaged Texas, but Sweeny was left relatively unscathed, the townspeople say.
Before the storm made landfall, Reuters reported that Phillips and Chevron had closed the Sweeny refinery due to flooding concerns. But after the storm, multiple chemical and petroleum spills in the refinery threatened to contaminate flood waters in the nearby Linnville bayous, which Sweeny residents were counting on to channel floodwaters past their town and into the Gulf of Mexico.
To keep the floodwaters out, the oil companies built barricades around the refinery and dams in the bayous. “These dams gave the water flowing downstream nowhere to flow, except to flood the land and people surrounding the Sweeny refinery,” the complaint states.
“Unforgivably, defendants never warned a single Sweeny resident of the imminent danger upon them,” the complaint states. “Instead, defendants sat quietly even though their hydrologists had told them the town was going to flood because of the dams.”
As the floodwaters rose, Sweeny residents found themselves trapped in their homes without access to food or clean water. Homes were damaged, livestock was lost and fields that had already been sown were ruined.
A spokesperson for Phillips 66 said the company did not believe it caused Sweeny to flood.
““We are aware of concerns from the community suggesting that our actions to protect the refinery contributed to additional flooding in the area,” Phillips 66 said in a statement sent to Courthouse News. “We do not believe that to be the case; however, we are investigating the issue and have been working with local authorities.”
“Although we experienced significant flooding in the refinery, our actions minimized the potential for release of feedstocks and products that could have negatively impacted the community and the environment.”
The townspeople seek compensatory and punitive damages for gross negligence, trespass and environmental hazards. They are represented by Josh Bowlin with Walston and Bowlin, of Houston.