Harvey Responders Say the Arkema Plant Blaze Made Them SickAri Natter and Laurel Brubaker Calkins
Police officers sue Arkema for saying fumes were not toxic
Explosions at chemical facility followed Harvey flooding
Police officers sickened by fumes from explosions at an Arkema SA chemical plant near Houston accused the company in a lawsuit of not warning them about toxic chemicals that left them vomiting and unable to catch their breath.
Officers patrolling an evacuation area near the plant "began to fall ill in the middle of the road" after being exposed to the fumes, according to the suit filed Thursday in Harris County Civil Court. The plant, which manufactured peroxides, lost power after Hurricane Harvey hit and the highly flammable chemicals couldn’t stay cooled.
"Police officers were doubled over vomiting, unable to breathe," according to the suit, which seeks at least $1 million in relief. "Medical personnel, in their attempts to provide assistance to the officers, became overwhelmed and they too began to vomit and gasp for air."
Most of the plaintiffs, which include six officers with the Harris County Sheriffs’ Office and an emergency medical services worker, remain under a doctors’ care, Misty Cone, a lawyer representing them, said by email.
“We reject any suggestion that we failed to warn of the danger of breathing the smoke from the fires at our site, or that we ever misled anyone," Stan Howard, an Arkema spokesman, said in an email. "To the contrary, we pleaded with the public, for their own safety, to respect the 1.5 mile evacuation zone imposed by the unified command well prior to any fire. We will vigorously defend a lawsuit that we believe is gravely mistaken.”
The plant, located about 25 miles east of downtown Houston, flooded, lost power and then had a series of fires or explosions, the first on the morning of Aug. 31. Arkema allowed 500,000 pounds of peroxides -- used to make plastic resins, polystyrene and acrylic resins -- to burn off, including through deliberately-set blazes. Authorities had evacuated residents in a 1.5-mile radius around the plant.
The company didn’t adequately prepare for flooding from the storm, including lacking adequate backup power, and company officials said publicly that the fumes weren’t toxic, according to the suit.
The officers "relied upon these representations and suffered serious bodily injuries as a result," according to the suit.
The Environmental Protection Agency also issued a statement saying that the smoke from the explosion didn’t contain dangerous levels of pollutants.
The France-based company, which has a number of production facilities in Texas, joined others in the chemical and oil and gas industry to fight an Obama-era rule prompted after an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people in 2013.
That rule, which was halted by EPA after President Donald Trump took office, would have required companies to disclose to first responders the risks of the chemicals on their plant site. The company wrote in comments to the EPA in 2016 that the requirements would "likely add significant new costs and burdens" and that requiring it to provide information to the community was itself a security risk.
"We have significant concerns with providing security-sensitive information where disclosure of such information could create a risk to our sites and to the communities surround them," the company wrote.