First responders injured during Arkema plant fire file lawsuit

CROSBY, Texas – Attorneys representing several first responders filed a lawsuit Thursday, claiming an initial fire burning at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby sickened their clients.

“It’s not something that should happen when you go to work to protect your community," said attorney Misty Hataway-Cone.

For several days, those living within 1.5 miles of the Arkema plant were told to stay out of their homes. Flood waters swamped safety systems designed to keep organic peroxides at the facility cool. When the chemicals heated up, fires erupted.

A trio of attorneys now want to know about what the plant did to prepare for Harvey. On Thursday, a judge granted the attorneys a temporary restraining order to ensure the company preserves all evidence related to the crisis.

“All the documents, all the emails, communications, anything that was done leading up to the hurricane coming in," said attorney Kim Spurlock.

READ: Fire extinguished at Arkema's Crosby plant

The lawsuit claims that during the initial fire on Aug. 31, several sheriff’s deputies and EMS crews outside the evacuation zone reported getting sick. Attorneys said their clients reported driving into a cloud near the perimeter of the evacuation zone.

“Double over and vomiting, to the other end of it, chemical bronchitis," said Hataway-Cone. "Immediately upon it coming in their air conditioners is when they started suffering these issues from the burning eyes, burning skin and the difficulty breathing."

VIDEO: Residents speak out after Arkema fires 

Arkema Inc. statement on litigation related to Crosby plant:

"We deeply regret that anyone suffered harm as a result of the havoc wreaked on our plant by Hurricane Harvey, particularly first responders who worked with us side-by-side to keep the public safe.

"Our employees acted in the same honorable and heroic way that thousands of other citizens in Harris County did when confronted with an unprecedented tragedy. They did everything they could to protect the public, while fighting fast-rising flood waters that were 5 to 7 feet high at our plant. We totally cooperated with all first responders and the numerous regulatory agencies working with us to keep the public safe.

"We reject any suggestion that we failed to warn of the danger of breathing the smoke from the fires at our site, or that we ever misled anyone. To the contrary, we pleaded with the public, for their own safety, to respect the 1.5 mile evacuation zone imposed by the unified command well prior to any fire. We will vigorously defend a lawsuit that we believe is gravely mistaken."

The lawsuit claims first responders and the broader community were not fully informed of the potential risks.

“There was no warning given by the manufacturer that this would happen to the first responders," said attorney Muhammad Aziz.

VIDEO: Attorneys speak about lawsuit filed against Arkema

The attorneys said they will be conducting their own tests to try to determine what chemicals were released into the air during the fires. They said they also represent several home owners living near the plant.

During the crisis, Arkema officials stated that outside the evacuation zone the hazards from the smoke were akin to breathing smoke from a campfire.

Multiple fires prompt evacuations

Flooding damaged the refrigeration system that keeps chemicals cool and stable at the plant on Crosby Eastgate Road near Highway 90.

One by one, tankers filled with organic peroxide exploded and caught fire, according to Arkema.

READ: Crosby Arkema plant has history of recent violations

The Environmental Protection Agency was monitoring the quality of the air and water in the area.

Officials said if people find debris or ash on their property, they should call the hotline at 1-877-4-ARKEMA.

VIDEO: Sky 2 surveys Crosby Arkema plant fire 

Officials said there is no word on when the plant will reopen.

The Harris County fire marshal is investigating the cause of the fire.

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About the Authors:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”