Harvey first responders sue after explosion at Arkema plant

HOUSTON — Seven first responders are suing Arkema, Inc. after they say they were hospitalized by toxic chemicals released during an explosion at the company’s Crosby plant.

At least 2 tons of highly unstable chemicals used in such products as plastics and paint exploded and burned at the site, creating smoke that reportedly stung the eyes and lungs.

Arkema had warned earlier in the week that an explosion of organic peroxides stored at the plant was imminent because Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed the backup generators and knocked out the refrigeration necessary to keep the compounds from degrading and catching fire.

All employees had been pulled from the plant before the blast, and up to 5,000 people living within 1½ miles had been warned to evacuate on Tuesday.

Two explosions in the middle of the night blew open a trailer containing the chemicals, lighting up the sky with 30- to 40-foot flames. The Texas environmental agency called the ensuing smoke “especially acrid and irritating” and said it can impair breathing and inflame the eyes, nose and throat.

However, the first responders were never told about the dangers of the smoke, attorneys said.

“Immediately upon being exposed to the fumes from the explosion, and one by one, the police officers and first responders began to fall ill in the middle of the road. Calls from medics were made, but still no one from Arkema warned of the toxic fumes in the air.”

In all, fifteen sheriff’s deputies complained of respiratory irritation. They were examined at a hospital and released, the Associated Press reported.

The plaintiffs are seeking $1 million in relief.

Arkema also owns a hydrogen peroxide manufacturing facility on Fite Road north of Memphis.

Read: Arkema Lawsuit

Arkema’s history

Texas A&M chemical safety expert Sam Mannan said the risk management plan that Arkema was required by state and federal law to develop did not address how it would deal with power and refrigeration failures or flooding.

A 2016 analysis he did with university colleagues ranked the Crosby plant among the 70 or so facilities with the biggest potential to cause harm in greater Houston, based on such factors as the type and amount of chemicals and the population density.

Arkema, which is headquartered in France, did not immediately return calls on the plant’s contingency planning.

Rachel Moreno, a spokeswoman for the fire marshal of Harris County, which encompasses Houston, would not discuss details of the risk management plan, such as how high the plant’s backup generators were placed.

Arkema officials did not directly notify local emergency managers of the generator failure, Moreno said. It came, instead, by way of the plant’s workers, who told the Crosby Volunteer Fire Department about it when they were rescued during the hurricane, she said.

State and federal regulators have cited Arkema for safety and environmental violations at the Crosby plant dating back more than a decade, records show.

Texas’ environmental commission penalized the company at least three times for a total of about $27,000, some of which was deferred pending corrective actions. Arkema denied the allegations.

During the last five years of compliance monitoring at the plant, state officials found five Clean Air Act-related deviations and two deviations from federal requirements on waste management, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records show.

In June 2006, the company had failed to prevent unauthorized emissions during a two-hour warehouse fire. Records show a pallet of organic peroxide was poorly stored, resulting in the blaze, and more than a ton of volatile organic compounds were discharged.

The biggest penalty, about $20,000, came in December 2011 after the commission found Arkema had failed to keep thermal oxidizers, used to decompose hazardous gases, at high enough temperatures over the course of several months.

More recently, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in February fined Arkema nearly $110,000 — later reduced to just over $90,000 — over 10 serious safety violations found during an inspection.

Records obtained by the AP show Arkema had kept using some equipment even when safety systems weren’t working properly, and didn’t inspect or test it as recommended. In one unit, the company also didn’t ensure equipment there was safe or keep employees up to date on their training.

Arkema is also embroiled in a series of lawsuits stemming from a deadly accident involving one of its contracts at a rail yard in New Orleans.

Arkema is defending itself in federal court after one worker died and two others were seriously injured after they were assigned to clean the inside of a rail car tank that had been filled with a harmful chemical. The men, who were working for a contractor with a long history of safety problems, were not wearing respirators and collapsed almost immediately, according to lawsuits filed by the survivors and the family of the man who died.

In court documents, Arkema denied responsibility for the accident, saying it had trusted its contractor to run the operation safely.