Well, that was quick.
In the wake of the chemical explosion at the Arkema Inc. plant in Crosby, a handful of first responders who were exposed to noxious smoke have filed a lawsuit against the company in Harris County District Court.
When it became clear that the organic peroxide stored at the Arkema plant was going to degrade and explode after the plant was flooded, lost power and the backup generators gave out during Hurricane Harvey, Arkema employees informed local, state and federal officials of the situation and the National Guard swooped in and cleared everyone in a 1.5-mile radius from the area.
First responders remained on the perimeter of the plant and when the organic peroxide did begin to explode, sending a stream of black smoke 40 feet into the air, they got sick.
Rich Rowe, president and CEO of Arkema Inc., has acknowledged that much, reporting that Harris County sheriff's deputies and others were taken to the hospital, treated and released after exposure to the smoke, and making that exposure sound as casual as possible.
However, now, a week after the first explosion — Arkema ultimately torched the whole load of organic peroxide on Monday because the company didn't have any way to stop the peroxide from exploding without putting a lot of people at risk — seven first responders have filed a lawsuit against Arkema over the incident.
What's more intriguing is that the story they are telling in the suit is vastly different from how Rowe and company have spun the incident.
The plaintiffs acknowledge that Hurricane Harvey, a storm that rolled in and stalled over southeast Texas starting August 25, unleashing more than 50 inches of rain on much of the area, was devastating. It was the kind of disaster that gave businesses days of warning so that they could prepare.
"This has happened before," the lawsuit states. "As a matter of fact, this has happened so many times before that most industries, private businesses and even governmental agencies have put in place physical structures and written procedures to prevent harm and damage to their properties and the people in their communities."
But the plaintiffs maintain that Arkema failed to do this, so when the site flooded and Arkema employees were forced to evacuate, they left behind volatile toxic chemicals (more than 500,000 gallons of organic peroxide) that would definitely ignite if they were not refrigerated.
The suit goes even further, contending that Arkema employees knew the chemicals would explode because the same thing had happened at the plant before, as a citation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had documented. Despite this, Arkema still neglected to come up with a back-up plan, like a back-up refrigeration system, to ensure the chemicals would be kept cool in the event of some major disaster, like a hurricane.
The plaintiffs also maintain Arkema was less than forthcoming on August 31 when the chemicals actually began to ignite. On the perimeter of the 1.5-mile evacuation radius, police and first responders got sick as they were exposed to the fumes. Then the emergency medics arrived and started feeling the effects of the fumes and smoke from the chemicals before even leaving their vehicles, according to the lawsuit.
The initial explanation — that some officers and other personnel on the scene were being hit by the fumes but some of it was so mild that some of the officers even drove themselves to the hospital — is essentially a creative and positive take on what happened, judging from the court records.
"The scene was nothing less than chaos," according to the lawsuit. "Police officers were doubled over vomiting, unable to breathe. Medical personnel, in their attempts to provide assistance to the officers, became overwhelmed and they too began to vomit and gasp for air. Some of the police officers, unable to abandon their vehicles due to their weapons being present, jumped in their vehicles and drove themselves to the nearest hospital. The other officers and medical personnel were all placed in an ambulance and were driven to the nearest hospital."
Arkema issued a statement maintaining that the lawsuit is a mistake and that the company never failed to warn people of the dangers of breathing smoke from the fire at the site, nor misled anyone. Of course, Arkema's statement doesn't go anywhere near the accusations that the company should have had better emergency plans in place to begin with.
Despite Arkema's claims, on Thursday a judge granted the plaintiffs' request for a temporary restraining order and injunction to keep Arkema from destroying or moving any of the evidence from the scene.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.