Two Arkema executives are awaiting an October hearing after they ended up indicted earlier this month for the “reckless” release of toxic chemicals during Hurricane Harvey last August.
Arkema Chief Executive Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle, appeared in Harris County District Court August 6, where bail was set at $20,000 each.
Both will continue working for the company despite the charges, and Arkema is paying their legal fees. The company also was indicted by a grand jury Aug. 3. The next court hearing is set for Oct. 22.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office said the company, Rowe and Comardelle put residents and first responders at risk when the Crosby plant caught fire as Harvey dumped record rainfall on the Houston area.
And the grand jury charged Arkema, Rowe and Comardelle with reckless emission of an air contaminant under the Texas Water Code. The charge carries a penalty of up to five years in prison for the individuals and a fine of up to $1 million for the corporation.
“This is the most outrageous, dumbest, wrong, unfair indictment I’ve ever encountered in my 43 years of dealing with the criminal justice system,” said Arkema attorney Rusty Hardin, adding he’s “comfortable” that a jury will find the two executives not guilty.
Chemical Council Discouraged
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) agrees.
“Hurricane Harvey was a record breaking storm that resulted in unprecedented and overwhelming impacts on people and companies across Greater Houston and major portions of the U.S. Gulf Coast,” the organization said in a statement. “It created many unique challenges due to the extreme flooding that came with the storm and tested the limits of everyone in its path. The chemical industry — including its thousands of men and women in the Houston area — went to great lengths to mitigate the severity of this historic natural disaster and to protect the safety of employees and neighbors. The prosecutor’s decision to pursue this course of action is discouraging and sets an alarming and unreasonable precedent of seeking to hold people responsible for acts of nature.”
The last time a chemical company faced criminal charges for a major incident in Texas was 2005, when an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 workers and injured almost 200. BP paid $50 million in fines for the incident, but no one from the company served prison time.
Hardin called the charges against Rowe, Comardelle and the company “tremendously unfortunate,” especially because Arkema had a hurricane preparedness plan.
“No one anywhere in Houston anticipated a storm like this,” he added. “This is an indictment that charges the victim, just like everyone else in the community, and I’ve never seen the victim of a national catastrophe charged with a crime.”
Federal documents showed Arkema wasn’t even prepared for a much smaller flood, despite being partially in a flood plain.
The company’s emergency plan provided little direction to employees on how to handle major floods, and as a result, it couldn’t keep combustible organic peroxides cool. Its main power transformers and backup generators were not high enough off the ground. Neither was its backup liquid nitrogen cooling system.
And Arkema’s last line of defense failed when water inundated the fuel tanks that power freezer trucks. Over the next week, nine trailers of organic peroxides erupted in flames, sending pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke into the air. More than six first-responders were sickened, according to civil suits filed against the company.
The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigation said Arkema was warned by its insurer of flood risks a year before Harvey hit.
Hardin expects the trial to take place early next year.
Rowe became the chief executive of Arkema’s North America division in 2015. He’s worked with the company for the last 16 years.
Tim Johnson, Rowe’s attorney, said Monday that suggesting anybody was reckless during this historic flooding event “is just ridiculous.” And Paul Nugent, Comardelle’s lawyer, said his client is innocent and that no one committed a crime during this “natural disaster of historic proportions.”
Comardelle has worked for Arkema more than 25 years. He was part of the ride-out crew that tried to prevent the release.
“At the end of the day (Comardelle) is a hero, we’ve indicted a hero for a felony,” Hardin said. Rowe “was in Philly running the company, and he can’t even get into Houston to try to help until like that Friday or so.”