The Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a civil suit against Arkema Inc., the company that grabbed a lot of attention after Hurricane Harvey when it became clear that the organic peroxide left in refrigerated trucks outside its Crosby plant was going to explode.
Shortly after Harvey battered the Texas Gulf Coast, 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.
From there, 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, with some collapsing in the road from exposure to toxic smoke and fumes.
Now, Harris County itself is getting in on the action. The Harris County Commissioners Court approved plans to file a lawsuit in civil court against Arkema for creating a public nuisance and keeping first responders that were badly needed elsewhere occupied dealing with the mess at the Crosby plant, or so Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney's Office environmental division contends.
“It's highly predictable these chemicals, organic peroxides, can catch fire when their temperatures rise, and they don't have to rise a significant amount, just above about 58 degrees," Owens says. "There should have been some contingency plan other than calling the local fire department for dealing with this, but it doesn't seem that there was one. If there was one it certainly wasn't effective.”
Arkema Inc. officials tried to explain away the absolute mess the plant was in once it was inundated and there was no plan to replace the back-up generators when they also began to fail. Owens says it was common knowledge for a week or more before they storm hit that Harris County could get as much as 50 inches of rain from Harvey. “I get the point where they say the storm was unpredictable, but it simply wasn't. We had information for quite some time that there was a possibility of rain in Harris County with the storm," Owens contends. "When it hit Port Aransas, people took a breath and said it wasn't coming here, but then it did and we knew that before it hit.”
Plus, he points out, the plant is located in a flood plain. That, paired with the fact that Harris County routinely gets these kinds of storms and has gotten three major floods in the past two years, all means that Arkema officials should have been expecting the possibility of flooding and definitely should have had better ways of dealing with the flood when it occurred, Owens says.
(On the other hand, it is worth remembering the surprise with which forecasters dealt with the sheer amount of rain Harvey brought, an amount that led to historic flooding and the first mid-storm releases of water from Addicks and Barker reservoirs in the more than 70-year history of the two structures. Arkema has continued to take this view of the incident.)
But the unpredictable nature of the storm doesn't change how ridiculous and troubling the situation that developed at Arkema actually was, since in the end the "fail-safe" plan was to just detonate the chemicals before they exploded in a more spontaneous fashion. This is particularly troubling since Arkema officials had dealt with these same materials igniting before in a 2006 fire at the plant, and there were other chemicals stored at the site that were also dangerous, Owens says.
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“It's just not reasonable for a company that deals with this kind of hazardous chemicals to not be prepared,” Owens says. “When a company is engaged in ultra-hazardous activity like this, they have a responsibility to the public to make sure that nothing goes wrong. And when it goes wrong, it's their fault. Expecting anything less is unreasonable.”
And really, considering what a mess Arkema created and how apparently ill-equipped the company was to deal with said mess, it certainly seems pretty reasonable for the county to sue. The commissioners approved the request for funds to hire experts on Tuesday. Owens expects to file the lawsuit sometime next week.
The suit will give Harris County a chance of recouping some of the expense of dealing with the Arkema emergency, according to Owens. There's also the hope that the county will be able to craft injunctions ensuring Arkema will comply with the law and prevent this from happening again. On top of that, there's the public shaming incentive — companies that get embarassed enough tend to try to reform, after all, Owens points out.
Meanwhile, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Chemical Safety Board are investigating how Arkema officials handled the incident. It should be interesting to hear what the three investigations ultimately dig up. Owens says he plans on working with all three agencies as the lawsuit unfolds. After all, hurricanes don't happen in a vacuum and neither do major chemical plant mishaps.