Harris County attorney files lawsuit against Arkema over emissions after Harvey

HOUSTON – Channel 2 Investigates has learned that Arkema, a global manufacturer in specialty chemicals and advanced materials, is being sued by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.

"We are going to seek the highest penalties possible for what happened and hopefully work with them to make sure that it never happens again," Ryan told KPRC 2.

Ryan, along with attorneys from his Environmental Practice Group, filed on Thursday what amounts to an environmental enforcement lawsuit against Arkema, for what the suit claims is an illegal emission on Aug. 31 in the aftermath of Harvey. 

DOCUMENT: Read Ryan's lawsuit

How bad was the release, according to Ryan? 

"Pretty bad," Ryan said. "The amount of release that was done on the 31st is quite significant."

The complaint specifically lists harmful contaminants including sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, which are capable of causing breathing problems and premature death in people with heart or lung disease, according to the EPA.

Arkema acknowledged the release of 11 contaminants to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality in the company's self-reporting of the event.  

In the weeks following Harvey, Arkema executives said they were caring for their neighbors in Crosby. Ryan said that in one sense, it is “probably an accurate statement,” but he quickly added, “The problem is kind of like the speeding driver who cares about all the other drivers, but they are still going way too fast."

Ryan told Channel 2 Investigates that he has concerns with Arkema's emergency response plan in Crosby.

"We hope it's not as bad as we think it is," Ryan said. "They did a very poor job of handling it, and one would have anticipated that they would have had a robust response to this kind of event."

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board released on Wednesday a highly produced animation illustrating exactly what took place during the arrival and aftermath of Harvey. The response highlighted in the video detailed how Arkema crews moved organic peroxides around the facility in an effort to prevent decomposition of the peroxide, as water overtook the property and caused power failures.

In the days that followed, residents within a mile-and-a-half of the plant were evacuated and more than a dozen sheriff's deputies were hospitalized responding to the explosions.

Aside from seeking a financial penalty, Ryan said he and his team want Arkema to pay the county back for its response, and he wants a better safety plan through legal enforcement. Additionally, the county wants Arkema to ensure buildings are compliant with the current floodplain, which changed in 2007. Ryan and his team also are asking for a community notification plan to be put in place so that if an event takes place in the future, residents can be properly warned. 

Ryan said emergency response plans can be expensive to implement and are typically not strict.

"I think too often you see in these kind of situations -- because of the expense in having a better way of handling the chemicals that they had -- that they choose a least expensive way of handling it to maximize profits," Ryan said.

Channel 2 Investigates reached out to Arkema’s headquarters in Pennsylvania as well as to their attorney in Houston for comment regarding the lawsuit.

Rusty Hardin, who is defending Arkema in this matter emailed the following to Channel 2 Investigates:

“Suing a victim is never the right solution to a natural disaster. We are disappointed that this lawsuit was filed when we were in discussions with the county to cooperatively resolve the issues. As they and we all know, this was an extraordinary flooding event. Arkema and its employees, like other businesses and individuals in Harris County, were victims of this storm. Our plant is still not open. Our employees are still not back to work. Filing lawsuits is not the solution here. Arkema plans to continue cooperating with authorities, but we will strenuously defend against any and all unfounded claims.”