Shannon Wheeler lives about three miles from the Arkema Inc. chemical plant in Crosby. The explosions that erupted from the plant during and shortly after Hurricane Harvey — due to more than 500,000 gallons of unrefrigerated organic peroxide, a chemical that degrades and eventually ignites as it heats up — were bad enough. But once the floodwaters that had inundated both Arkema and Wheeler's own home receded, he found chunks of black ash and a black residue coating his yard.
Within two weeks of getting back in the house, Wheeler went outside, mowed his lawn and soon broke out in a thick, scaly rash. His doctor concluded Wheeler had contracted dermatitis, and now a lawsuit Wheeler and 13 other residents near the plant have filed in federal court contends that the rash, along with other ailments people near Arkema have experienced since the hurricane, was caused by toxins emanating from the Arkema facility.
In other words, the explosions are a thing of the past but the lawsuits against Arkema just keep on coming.
The newest suit, filed in federal court, argues that the buffer zone created around the plant should have been much wider, and that the whole situation was preventable and should never have happened.
Shortly after Harvey battered the Texas Gulf Coast at the end of August, it was apparent that the organic peroxide stored at the Arkema plant was going to degrade and explode after the plant, located about 30 miles outside of Houston, was flooded, lost power and the backup generators gave out during the storm. In an effort to mitigate the fallout from the impending explosions, Arkema employees informed local, state and federal officials of the situation. The National Guard swooped in and cleared everyone in a 1.5-mile radius from the area.
And then the explosions started. Fumes and plumes of smoke erupted from the site and first responders lining the perimeter began choking and hacking, some collapsing in the street from the effect of the chemicals in the air, they claimed in a lawsuit of their own.
The combustible mess at Arkema made international news, and since then first responders, area residents and the Harris County Attorney's Office have opted to sue the company, while Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is reportedly conducting a criminal investigation of what happened at the plant in the wake of Harvey.
But now it is becoming clear that the explosion wasn't the only problem Arkema helped create during the storm.
The most recent lawsuit alleges that Arkema not only exposed residents and first responders to some particularly nasty chemicals lacing the air, but that testing has also revealed how the presence of noxious toxins — including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, semi-volatile organic compounds, dioxins and heavy metals — was found in ash, soil and dust samples collected from properties of residents living near the plant. (Although 14 have joined the suit so far, it's reasonable to expect more will sign on as the case unfolds since about 300 homes had to be evacuated during the crisis.)
After all, the explosions may not have stayed at the front of the public's consciousness with everything else going on in the wake of the storm. But the sediment from the explosions — both the initial one and the controlled burn-off the company allowed a few days later when it became clear there was no other way of dealing with the chemicals left behind when the plant flooded — didn't simply evaporate into thin air.
In fact, that is exactly what did not happen, according to the lawsuit. In the weeks since the explosion many exposed to the chemicals and other toxins believed to have come from the plant have experienced "negative health effects."
Not only have they had to continue breathing the air near the plant — since that's where their homes are located — they have also been exposed to to the chemicals released by Arkema through the skin as they have navigated chemical-tainted floodwaters and risked breathing in, absorbing or possibly swallowing the particulate matter that dropped onto the ground and other exposed surfaces.
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Of course, not all of this material could have been contaminated by the explosions, and no one is claiming that it was.
But there's no muddy mystery about where the toxins came from. Arkema released more than 62,000 pounds of contaminants into the air, according to records from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality., But the company also released more than 23,000 pounds of contaminants from two wastewater tanks that filled and overflowed during the storm. The chemicals released into the floodwaters then spread through nearby homes as the floods rose and then receded.
Arkema officials started apologizing almost as soon as it became clear that the plant would certainly see some explosions, but they have continued to insist that the incident at the Crosby site was unforeseeable and that the resulting damages and injuries are not their fault.
If things keep going like this — there is an application to turn this suit into a class action, which will likely attract even more plaintiffs if it gets approved — we are going to have the opportunity to see the question of whether or not Arkema was ultimately responsible for all of this.