Jury selection is set to begin today in the trial of Arkema Inc. The Pennsylvania-based company allegedly failed to take precautions prior to Hurricane Harvey, allowing trailers of organic peroxides to heat up and explode at its Crosby site, sending toxic smoke into the atmosphere, sickening at least 21 people.
Mike Keough, Arkema’s logistics vice president, was indicted by a grand jury in April on felony assault charges for causing bodily injury to two sheriff’s deputies by withholding critical information needed by first responders, according to Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.
In 2018, the company’s CEO, Richard Rowe, and Leslie Comardelle, the plant’s manager, received grand jury indictments for alleged recklessness in releasing dangerous chemicals, a violation of state law. The trial is set at 9 a.m. Monday in the 339th Criminal Court with Judge Jesse McClure III presiding.
If convicted, Arkema could be subject to millions in fines and Keough could face up to 10 years in prison. Rowe and Comardelle could face up to five years in prison, Ogg said.
The district attorney’s office was asked to comment on the trial.
“Per our policy, the DA’s doesn’t comment on the eve of trial,” Michael Kolenc, HCDA spokesman, said.
The jury selection process is set to begin today and last throughout the weekend.
Ogg, speaking last year, said Arkema has full responsibility in the incident.
“Arkema knew of the dangers, withheld vital information, and unleashed harm on first responders and the community,” Ogg said.
Houston attorney Rusty Hardin, who is representing Arkema, declined to comment on the trial as well. However, Hardin had released a statement before about Keough, asking how he could assault anyone in Texas when his office was in King of Prussia, PA, when the plant exploded.
Keough is now retired from Arkema.
The Arkema trailers exploded when Hurricane Harvey hit the area in August 2017 and dumped 40-inches of rain in the Houston area. The floodwaters from the storm caused the power to fail, which turned off the refrigeration that cooled the trailers with the organic peroxide. For days, the trailers sat, heated up and finally exploded. First responders drove in the smoke and became sick. About 200 nearby residents had to be evacuated. No deaths or serious injuries were reported.
Arkema officials have stated the incident was an “act of God,” and they are not at fault.
“Responsibility for pursuing profit over the heads of innocent people rests with the leadership of Arkema,” Ogg said at the time she announced the first charges against Rowe and Comardelle. They were each released on a $20,000 bond at the time.
Hardin said in his statement there has never been an indictment like this in Texas or any other state.
“This is an unprecedented and outrageous attempt to criminalize a natural disaster,” Hardin said. “This is a political prosecution.”
Hardin said Comardelle rode out the storm and tried to prevent the plant from flooding. Hardin referred to Comardelle and the plant managers as “heroes.”
Arkema, in its own issued statement, referred to the charges as “astonishing” and said an independent study by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board discovered the plant had compulsory plans and procedures in place, as well as auxiliary power to keep the electricity on so the refrigeration would not fail. First responders were warned, the company officials stated, and the storm, which many called a 500-year event, was overwhelming.
The board stated in its summary, Arkema was within compliance of the law as well as industry standards. In addition, the rain from the storm was called “unprecedented.”
However, Arkema’s current employees did not know the plant’s history of floods. The plant experienced flooding in 1994 and 2015, something known to past plant managers but not to the present ones. The company’s insurer apparently knew the plant was in a flood plain, but the staff was not aware. Arkema’s planning did not meet either company nor industry standards for when the electricity goes out.
The board also pointed out the current flood hazard procedures are “inadequate,” citing none of them required the plant to place power sources and lines up high enough where floodwaters could not reach them in spite of the site being in a flood plain.
In 2016, Texas A&M University and Houston Chronicle conducted an analysis and said the Arkema Crosby site was at risk for a dangerous accident in the Houston area.