Trial Over Chemical Plant Fire Kicks Off in Houston

Smoke rises from the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, on Sept. 1, 2017. (KTRK via AP, File)

HOUSTON (CN) – Plagued by a spate of plant explosions and fires, Texas petrochemical producers stepped into uncharted waters in a Houston courtroom Thursday with state prosecutors urging jurors to send a CEO to prison for a chemical meltdown that damaged the lungs of two sheriff’s deputies.

Home to numerous refineries, chemical plants and oil company headquarters, Houston proudly proclaims itself the energy capital of the world. But disruptive, sometimes deadly, industrial accidents have become commonplace here.

Three petrochemical disasters struck the region last year killing a worker, forcing more than 50,000 people to evacuate their homes, temporarily closing the Houston Ship Channel and casting a cloud of black smoke that spread over the city for days and affected weather patterns, drifting 100 miles northwest to College Station.

Just last month, a propylene tank exploded in a Houston machine shop warehouse, killing two workers and damaging hundreds of homes.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg wants to make an example of Arkema Inc., a subsidiary of a French chemical manufacturer, for an August 2017 incident at its plant in Crosby, a northeastern Houston suburb, that forced 205 residents to evacuate their homes and hospitalized 21 first responders.

“What is unusual about this case is the prosecution by state/county authorities under state criminal laws rather than criminal charges by the feds under a specific environmental statute,” said Victor Flatt, a University of Houston environmental law professor.

The state’s case against Arkema, CEO Richard Rowe, former Crosby plant manager Leslie Comardelle and now retired vice president of logistics Michael Keough stems from the lung injuries of two Harris County sheriff’s deputies, Bryan Sweetman and David Klozik.

The deputies drove their patrol cars through a gray vapor cloud emitted from Arkema’s plant in the early morning of Aug. 31, 2017 after Hurricane Harvey flooded the property with 6 feet of water, knocking out power needed to keep organic peroxides near freezing temperature. The compounds combusted after Arkema workers moved them to refrigerated trailers.

Harris County special prosecutor Michael Doyle said in opening statements Thursday the fumes left Sweetman and Klozik doubled over and vomiting and caused permanent lung damage — they both now use inhalers and Sweetman has been diagnosed with the lung disease fibrosis.

Doyle said organic peroxides are a “witches brew” so volatile that when Arkema ships them in trucks to clients, it does so in trailers equipped with satellites, which relay the temperatures in the trailer to the driver and the company’s headquarters in Philadelphia.

“They are one of the most serious potential weapons of mass destruction and have been used several times by terrorists in attacks in Europe,” Doyle said. “One of the reasons you can’t take liquids through security is that if you take a cup of organic peroxides freezing and it heats up and self-combusts, it’s likely to take down the plane and its passengers.”

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A timeline of Arkema plant fires. (Photo via U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board)

Despite the risks, Arkema never tried to move organic peroxides out of harm’s way ahead of a storm, Doyle said, through dozens of tropical storms and hurricanes that hit the Houston area going back to the late 1960s, when the company’s predecessor started manufacturing the compounds at the plant.

The state claims Arkema and its employees committed an air emissions felony when they did not remove the peroxides from the site with Hurricane Harvey approaching Houston, and although the plant is in the 100-year and 500-year flood plains, the company did not have a flood-protection plan to keep the peroxides cool.

“They know the weather history. They’ve had predictions for almost 55 years, past precedent of what the plant has faced. They actually have a hurricane plan that requires them to consider moving product to safety,” Doyle said. “But they have no criteria for when they would actually do that. Because they will never do that. They will always choose to leave product on site.”

A small hurricane “ride-out” crew Arkema assigned to keep watch of the plant during the storm evacuated Aug. 29, 2017 after the rising flood waters tipped over a refrigerated trailer the workers had moved the peroxides to from a warehouse, one of nine trailers they moved the compounds to.

Arkema’s defense attorney Letitia Quinones said the same day Arkema’s crew evacuated, company officials started warning area fire departments that the peroxides could combust, and their firefighters should wear protective gear if they were going to be in the area.

A unified command with law enforcement, fire marshal’s office, state and federal environmental agents was set up near the plant and they established a 1.5-mile evacuation zone to keep people away from the plant.

Quinones told jurors the unified command held dozens of conference calls with Arkema’s employees, who told them on a call at 5 p.m. on Aug. 30 that two of the trailers which contained the peroxides could not be monitored remotely and predicted the peroxides would catch fire in six to 22 hours.

“On Aug. 31 around 2 a.m. there was a combustion and one of the trailers caught fire,” Quinones said. “They were right on the money between six and 22 hours. So you ask yourself how in the world did the deputies get hurt? During the time the exclusion zone was set up … Guess who drove through exclusion zone?”

She said the deputies also disregarded Arkema’s warning to wear protective gear.

“If a house is on fire and I tell you not to walk through it and you do and get burned it’s not my fault,” Quinones said.

But special prosecutor Doyle said Arkema lied to the unified command that all the trailers were being monitored while at the same time telling state environmental regulators its monitoring was compromised.

“Arkema did not let anyone know some of its trailers were not being monitored until it was too late,” he said.

If convicted of both charges, Arkema faces more than $1 million in fines. CEO Rowe and former plant manager Comardelle could be sentenced to up to five years in prison for their air pollution charges.

Keough, the retired logistics vice president, is looking at two to 10 years if convicted of assault.

Arkema is also represented by prominent Houston defense attorney Rusty Hardin.

The trial is expected to go for five to six weeks.

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