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HOUSTON -- Harris County prosecutors were in court today for the arraignment of two chemical company executives for endangering and injuring emergency workers, including police officers, during the flooding brought on by Hurricane Harvey. Arkema, a major French chemical manufacturer with a large U.S. presence, is accused of recklessly releasing a toxic cloud over Houston last August, prosecutors announced.
This morning, Arkema North America’s CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle, appeared in the courtroom in Houston.
“Companies should ensure they are not hurting their neighbors or first responders,” said Kara Cook-Schultz, Toxics Director of TexPIRG. “We’ve seen many occasions where corporations are not held accountable. But prosecutors here in Houston are saying that enough is enough.”
The charge carries penalties of up to five years in prison for both Rowe and Comardelle, and up to a $1 million fine for their corporation.
The Houston Chronicle reports that according to U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigators, Arkema was warned of flood risks a year before Harvey dumped up to 51 inches of rain on the Houston area. In May 2018, the CSB released a report on its final investigation, finding that Arkema did not meet the industry standard for flood protection, and that first responders were put at unnecessary risk by the company's actions.
Arkema was supposed to keep chemicals frozen so they wouldn’t burst into flames. However, when floodwaters knocked out the plant’s power, it got warmer and the chemicals exploded, causing a fire that released the toxic cloud.
The Harris County District Attorney's office alleges that the incident could have been prevented, and the Arkema executives’ recklessness threatened the health of everyone nearby. Making matters worse, in the days that followed the chemical release, prosecutors say Arkema failed to notify people who lived or came near the plant about the cause of the incident or about how dangerous the situation really was.
“These potential prison sentences and fines should spur Arkema and other chemical companies to develop and maintain robust contingency plans in anticipation of natural disasters,” said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG State Director. “Without responsible planning, we could again end up with tragic consequences for brave first responders and people who happen to live close by.”
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