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Arkema

County brings charges related to ITC fire

Bring it on.

Kim Ogg

Responding to what it called “criminal levels” of contamination, the Harris County District Attorney’s office said Monday that it has charged Intercontinental Terminals Company with five misdemeanor counts of water pollution arising from a March plant fire that sent toxic chemicals into nearby waterways and a thick plume of smoke over the Houston area for days.

“The discharge from the ITC fire into Tucker Bayou is a clear water pollution case,” said Alex Forrest, the environmental crimes division chief for the DA’s office, in a written statement. “We are looking forward to reviewing the reports of other local and federal agencies, as they complete their investigations, so that we can determine if other charges will follow.”

The charges are the most recent example of District Attorney Kim Ogg’s more aggressive approach toward chemical companies in the aftermath of environmental disasters that have outraged the public and drawn national attention.

“This is the beginning of our review, not the end,” said Dane Schiller, a spokesman for the DA’s office.

According to the DA’s Office, water pollution in Tucker Bayou was at “criminal levels” from March 17 through March 21. Prosecutors filed one count for each of the five days the company allegedly violated the law at its Deer Park plant. Each charge carries a fine of up to $100,000.

“People living in Deer Park and the other neighboring residential areas near ITC’s plant deserve protection,” Ogg said. “When public health is at risk, it’s a public safety concern.”

An attorney for ITC, which stores petrochemicals for companies including Chevron, Philips 66 and Exxon, defended its efforts.

“Although we have not seen the charges, there is no question that there was a large fire and an enormous effort to extinguish it which resulted in a discharge into Tucker Bayou,” said Michael Goldberg, an attorney for ITC, in a written statement.

[…]

Monday’s court action against ITC marks the second time Ogg has pursued criminal charges against Houston-area companies in high-profile pollution cases. After a chemical fire during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Ogg brought a criminal case against the chemical company Arkema and two of its executives for the “reckless” release of an air contaminant.

Investigators found that the company’s emergency plan provided little direction to employees on how to handle major floods, and as a result, it couldn’t keep combustible organic peroxides cool, according to federal documents. Over the next week, nine trailers of organic peroxides erupted in flames, sending pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke into the air.

Prosecutors recently charged the company and a third executive with reckless assault, citing injuries sustained by two deputies who responded to the scene based on the company’s assurances. Company officials have defended their actions in both suits and accused Ogg’s office of prosecutorial overreach.

See here for more about the Arkema indictments, which as far as I know have not progressed past that stage yet. These charges came right after Kim Ogg requested more environmental prosecutors. I don’t know if the one has to do with the other, but either way I expect that division to be busy. It’s one thing to file charges, it’s another to get convictions, and still another for those convictions to withstand appeal. We’ll keep an eye on these.

Prosecuting polluters

It really shouldn’t have to come to this, but here we are.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is calling for a tripling of the number of prosecutors dedicated to environmental crimes in the wake of a series of chemical plant fires that has raised public health concerns.

In a letter Thursday to the county judge and commissioners court, Vivian King, the chief of staff of the district attorney’s office, requested $850,000 to fund eight new positions: four prosecutors two investigators and two paralegals. The county currently has two prosecutors and one administrative assistant devoted to environmental crimes. The request is scheduled to come before the commissioners court on Tuesday.

On March 17, an Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm in Deer Park caught fire and burned for several days, closing the Houston Ship Channel and drawing national attention. No injuries were reported. A couple of weeks later, one person was killed and two others were critically injured when the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby caught fire. A fire also broke out at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery in mid-March but was contained hours later. The investigations are ongoing.

“With Arkema and ITC and all of the alleged criminal acts intentionally polluting our waters supply with cancer agents, we don’t have the staff to investigate and work on these cases,” King said during an interview.

The DA’s environmental crimes division handles 400 to 500 cases a year, the bulk of which are related to illegal dumping and water pollution perpetrated by smaller companies or individuals — not the big corporations, King said.

[…]

Traditionally the county has not criminally prosecuted the large petrochemical industry, King said.

She stressed that the DA’s office welcomes an industry that’s a major source of employment and an important contributor to the area’s economy.

“However,” she added, “as public servants we get a lot of complaints about the very few companies that commit criminal acts by intentionally not following laws and regulations governing hazardous waste and chemical emissions and putting cancer agents in our water supply and the air we breath.”

And they currently don’t have the staff to handle it all, even less so to take on the big cases. A private attorney is working pro bono on a case involving Arkema.

Let’s be clear, it would be best if most of this work were done by the TCEQ. If they were an agency that took their mandate seriously – and, let’s be clear again, if the mandate they were given by the state were more serious – they would be in position to reduce the risk of catastrophes like these. Better enforcement up front is always the better way to go. In the absence of that, and with constraints on civil action, what other option is there for the most egregious offenders? If and when the state does its job, entities like the Harris County DA will be able to back off. This request was part of the larger ask for more prosecutors that was rejected in February. It was unanimously approved by Commissioners Court yesterday, so that’s good. I suspect there will be no shortage of work for this team.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

A county’s gotta do what a county’s gotta do.

Harris County officials are using flood control regulations passed after Hurricane Harvey to delay the reopening of two chemical companies where fires erupted in recent weeks, killing one worker and sending large plumes of black smoke into the Houston area.

The Harris County Attorney’s office cited the post-Harvey rules on floodplain construction and stormwater drainage in its civil lawsuits against KMCO and Intercontinental Terminals Co., where cleanup is still ongoing after the fires.

“We don’t shy away from going after the biggest, baddest companies out there,” said Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “It sends a message to everyone.”

The county is digging through maps and available data to determine if both companies are in a floodplain. The new regulations put chemical facilities that are in a 500-year floodplain under tighter scrutiny.

The drainage rules restrict discharges of hazardous materials into the county’s stormwater system. If a company is found to have discharged hazardous materials, it can be cited by the county. Larger releases could lead to additional legal action.

The floodplain rules apply to more than facilities with fires and toxic releases and can force companies to meet new requirements when seeking to expand or change an existing facility, said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section.

The story doesn’t go into detail about what compliance issues there are and how long they may take to resolve. You may be thinking “why doesn’t the county file a lawsuit against these companies to force them to fix their problems?” The answer is that this used to be how things went, but your Texas legislature has taken steps to shackle counties and their enforcement efforts.

But in 2015, the state Legislature started taking away authority from the local governments. Lawmakers approved a bill capping the amount of money a local government could receive from civil penalties sought in environmental cases.

In 2017, another bill passed forcing local authorities to ask permission from the Texas attorney general before seeking penalties. If the attorney general’s office does not file its own suit in 90 days, the local government can go forward with a civil suit.

Lawmakers are currently considering two bills that would restrict local governments even more.

House Bill 3981, filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would give the attorney general the authority to settle lawsuits started by the county, without the approval of the county.

House bill 2826, filed by state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood and three others, would let the attorney general prohibit the county from hiring outside attorneys on cases.

“The concern isn’t that the local governments are intentionally causing any problems with these suits, just that a more efficient state-led effort may at times be more desirable,” said Justin Till, Bonnen’s chief of staff.

More desirable for the polluters, that’s for sure. Let’s be very clear, the main reason why bills like these get passed are specifically to muzzle Harris County’s enforcement efforts. (The city of Houston’s efforts were killed by the Supreme Court.) It’s a pollution-friendly Republican Legislature taking care of bad actors, aided and abetted by the business lobby. You know what I’m going to say next: Nothing will change until we change who we elect.

Arkema indictments

This will cause a stir.

A Harris County grand jury on Friday indicted the French chemical company Arkema and two executives for the “reckless” release of toxic chemicals during Hurricane Harvey last August, a move that alarmed industry leaders and surprised environmental advocates.

The company, CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle put residents and first responders at risk when the Crosby plant caught fire as Harvey dumped record rainfall on the Houston area, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

“As the hurricane approached, Arkema was more concerned about production and profit than people,” said Alexander Forrest, chief of the District Attorney’s environmental crimes division.

The last time a chemical company faced criminal charges for a major incident in Texas was 2005, when an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 workers and injured almost 200. BP paid $50 million in fines for the incident but no one from the company served prison time.

Arkema called the criminal charges filed against it “astonishing” and pledged to fight them vigorously.

“There has never been an indictment like this in Texas or any other state,” Arkema attorney Rusty Hardin said. “It would set an ominous precedent if a company could be held criminally liable for impact suffered as a result of the historic flooding of Hurricane Harvey that no one, including Harris County itself, was prepared for.”

But federal documents showed Arkema wasn’t even prepared for a much smaller flood, despite being partially located in a floodplain.

[…]

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said she’d go after companies who pollute. Environmental advocates applauded her actions.

“I hope these kinds of criminal charges will really get the attention of not just Arkema but the industry more broadly,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of the advocacy group Environment Texas. “They can’t play fast and loose with safety standards and the protection of the public.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Arkema is also being sued by Harris County, which is usually how these things go when any action is taken. Going for indictments is a bold move, one that hasn’t been done before, but one that is at least worth considering, given the circumstances. Whether the indictments will survive the motions to quash them, and the appeals in those motions are denied, is the key question. I will keep an eye on this.

Harris County sues Arkema

Good.

Vince Ryan

Harris County filed suit Thursday against Arkema over chemical fires at its Crosby plant in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, saying the company violated a long list of environmental, safety and building regulations and put first responders at risk.

The lawsuit, filed in state district court, seeks up to $1 million in penalties and asks that Arkema be ordered to upgrade its emergency response plans, build stronger storage areas and set up a notification system for alerting nearby residents of future incidents.

About 300 homes were evacuated and more than 30 people hospitalized — including law enforcement — when a volatile chemical erupted into flames after the plant lost power and generators in Harvey floodwaters.

“This was a very dangerous situation,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement Thursday. “Arkema must take responsibility for its inability to ensure the safety of the people of the Crosby community and those who protect them.”

[…]

The company self-reported multiple emissions from the plant to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality TCEQ during the disaster. Before the company lost control of its organic peroxides, floodwaters overwhelmed its wastewater treatment plant, resulting in industrial wastewater leaking into county waterways. Each separate fire resulted in air emissions from the facility.

Multiple new details were revealed in the county’s lawsuit. The county’s suit claims that Harris County Pollution Control Department detected air pollution outside of the mandated evacuation zone during the crisis.

It also says parts of the Arkema facility is located below base flood elevation, requiring permits the company did not have.

See here for more on the first lawsuit filed against Arkema. Commissioners Court authorized filing this lawsuit in late September. As I said before, I think Arkema needs to be held accountable for the things that it did and did not do that led to the many harmful environmental problems that resulted. Harvey was an unprecedented event and there likely wasn’t much they or anyone could have done to prevent consequences from it, but that doesn’t take them off the hook for their failure to be prepared. The Press has more.

Harris County files lawsuit against Arkema

More trouble for that nasty and troublesome chemical plant.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday authorized the county attorney to file a lawsuit against Arkema over its struggles to manage stores of hazardous chemicals during Hurricane Harvey.

The county’s Pollution Control Services Department found serious violations of the Texas Clean Air Act by Arkema, County attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. The county will try to recover the costs from responding to the crisis at the company’s Crosby plant. It will ask the court to review Arkema’s emergency preparedness plan and its environmental practices. The commissioners made the decision to approve the suit as part of its agenda wide unanimous vote.

“We’ve shown if you’re a bad actor, we’ll hold you accountable,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman.

[…]

Arkema lost control of its Crosby facility after floodwaters cut the power and wiped out its back up generators. With the power out and cooling systems failing, volatile organic peroxides exploded multiple times over a week, producing towering pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke.

A 1.5 mile evacuation zone was set up when government officials got access to the company’s chemical inventories. About 300 homes were evacuated during the crisis.

“During the height of this storm event, we had to have literally dozens of first responders tied up at this facility when they could have been in other areas of the county,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the county attorney’s environmental group.

Arkema’s claims that there was no way to anticipate six feet of water inundating the Crosby plant isn’t believable, Owens said. “We all knew for a week that we might get up to 50 inches of rain,” he said. ,” Owens said. “That’s not true. We all knew it was coming.”

See here for some background. Basically, the allegations in this lawsuit and the one filed by first responders are that this plant was woefully inadequate on safety measures, and they covered up their inadequacies as much as they could, which put residents and those first responders in needless danger. I would very much like to see them held responsible for this.

Lawsuit filed over Crosby plant explosion

This ought to be fun to watch.

Seven first responders who were exposed to fumes from a chemical fire last week at a Crosby, Texas, manufacturing plant have filed suit against the plant’s owner, alleging that the company’s negligence caused them “severe bodily injuries.”

The plaintiffs, who include police officers and medical personnel, say in the lawsuit that when they were dispatched to the Harvey-flooded Arkema chemical plant in the early hours of Aug. 31, they were not alerted that more than one explosion had already taken place. Exposed to strong fumes, they “began to fall ill in the middle of the road,” and “police officers were doubled over vomiting, unable to breathe.” The suit also states that medical personnel “became overwhelmed, and they began to vomit and gasp for air.”

According to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, 15 sheriff’s deputies were sent to the hospital and released later on the morning of Aug. 31. Company officials described that smoke as “a non-toxic irritant,” and Harris County officials compared it to what escapes a campfire or barbecue pit.

The plaintiffs claim that the company never warned them of “toxic fumes” present on the site. Company officials, as well as state and federal government agencies, have maintained over the last week that they have not found “toxic concentration levels in areas away from the evacuated facility.” The company has been criticized for its refusal to disclose certain chemical safety documents. Arkema CEO Rich Rowe has described this as an attempt “to balance the public’s right to know with the public’s right to be secure.”

I haven’t followed this particular aspect of the Harvey disaster and aftermath. There are some links to other Trib stories at the end of this one, or just Google “Arkema explosion” to get caught up. The crux of the issue is one part lax oversight, by both Arkema and the state, and one part lack of disclosure about what hazards were present. If you’re thinking we’ve been down this road before, you’re right. I am mostly interested to see if anything has changed since the last major plant explosion. I don’t expect it – let’s not be naive – but we do live in a different world now, so you never know. ThinkProgress and the Lone Star Project have more.