One of the most striking issues that bubbled up during Hurricane Harvey and the aftermath of the storm was how Arkema Inc., which has a chemical plant located in Crosby, about 30 miles southeast of Houston, had no back-up plan for how to keep the volatile compounds stored at the facility from breaking down and igniting after the plant lost power.
And now residents who were in the strike zone of the plant are suing over how Arkema handled the incident.
Arkema made international news when it was learned that the flooded plant had more than 500,000 gallons of organic peroxide on site and no way to either keep the chemical substance cool or to neutralize it without the substance actually igniting.
Arkema officials contacted local, state and federal agencies and cleared people out for a 1.5-mile perimeter around the facility, and then waited for it to explode. After the first "series of loud pops" and lots of smoke in the predawn hours of August 31 — an incident that the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office somehow characterized as not an explosion — the police and other law enforcement officers guarding the perimeter were exposed to toxins that left officers collapsing in the street and gasping for breath.
The experience sent more than 30 officers to the hospital, and a number of law enforcement personnel and first responders subsequently filed a lawsuit in Harris County District Court against Arkema.
Now, 11 homeowners who live in the area, and who were apparently present when Arkema officials finally stepped in and deliberately ignited the organic peroxide containers on September 3, have joined the lawsuit.
People who had been cleared out of the area by the National Guard shortly after the hurricane were growing tired of waiting for Arkema to sort things out. Some of their homes were flooded and incurring even more damage each day they couldn't get in and start cleaning them out, and many had been forced to leave behind livestock that they needed to return to and take care of, according to the lawsuit.
When the plant on September 3 began igniting the organic peroxide that hadn't already exploded on its own, it sent "plumes of smoke ash and chemicals into the air that could be seen for miles."
And the debris did not stay within the bounds of the 1.5-mile perimeter Arkema and law enforcement had set up. "Debris fell all around (well outside the arbitrary perimeter) on people, their homes, their yards, their animals, their property and their children," according to the suit. "More people became exposed to the fumes and those that had been previously exposed were still trying to recover from the physical limitations they suffered days prior."
In other words, there's never a good time to clear out a whole bunch of toxic chemicals via explosion, but in some ways Arkema may have waited just long enough to make its timing particularly bad, according to the suit. (Arkema representatives have maintained since the initial suit was filed that there's no case here and that the company is not at fault.)
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The amended lawsuit has also added a new defendant. Residents and first responders are now also including Bureau Veritas, an air quality monitoring company contracted by Arkema to run tests in the area around the plant, for that company's part in the subsequent mess.
When residents were allowed to return to their homes on Labor Day, there was still so much chemical crud in the air that they were advised to drink bottled water and wear protective clothing. Once they got back into their homes, they began to experience health issues too — everything from itchy and burning eyes to burning throats to upper respiratory infections, bronchitis and pneumonia.
Between the actual experience and the fact that residents in the area are now dealing with property damage and a loss of property value, based on the proximity of the homes to the plant, the residents are suing Arkema. Considering the fact that they went from being "people who live in Crosby" to being "people who live within the fallout zone of a chemical plant that failed to handle its chemicals properly during a crisis,” the residents in the area do seem to have a point.