Arkema, CEO Richard Rowe, and Leslie Comardelle—the plant manager at the Crosby, Texas, site—received grand jury indictments in the District Court of Harris County in August 2018 for violating Texas Emission and Environmental Quality standards. The officers face up to five years in prison. In April, Mike Keough, Arkema’s former logistics vice president, was indicted on felony assault charges stemming from the injuries of two sheriff’s deputies who were treated for chemical exposure, according to Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.
The trial beginning Tuesday highlights industry attorney fears of criminal prosecutions against company officials in light of accidents and chemical releases.
Arkema Inc. is a subsidiary of France-based Arkema SA. A representative from the company wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Release During Harvey
Ogg brought the charges against the chemicals producer after the facility lost electric power and backup generators failed during Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.
Arkema placed its inventory of organic peroxide in refrigerated trailers, but as floodwaters rose, the trailers eventually lost power, too. Authorities evacuated 200 residents within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant, and the chemicals decomposed and ignited over several days.
In its defense, Arkema says the chemical release was the result of “an Act of God,” according to the company’s website. It also cited a U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board probe of the incident, completed in May 2018, noting that Arkema’s actions were reasonable because “there were no regulatory or industry standards that existed that were applicable to Arkema’s unique situation.”
The CSB has deployed investigators to the Houston region seven times since 2018 to investigate several accidents, compared with roughly once per year between 2016 and 2018, according to the agency’s website.
Investigators attribute the spate of fires and explosions to aging refineries and the sheer number of chemical companies in operation. Others say the accidents are becoming more common because of companies’ increasing leeway to self-regulate.
In January, Greg Dillard, a safety, environmental, and crisis management attorney with Baker Botts in Houston, said that companies’ greatest fear is the possibility of criminal prosecutions against management and companies themselves.
“Companies are very aware of the increased scrutiny and increased regulatory enforcement concerns,” Dillard said last month.
Harris County and Texas state regulators are also pursuing civil damages from Arkema.
Visiting Judge Belinda Hill will preside over for Harris County’s 339th District Court in the case.
The case is Texas v. Arkema, Tex. Dist. Ct., Nos. 1600310 & 1627625, trial scheduled 2/18/20.