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Complications in Arkema trial

HOUSTON – Arkema SA’s U.S. arm has the dubious distinction of being one of few industrial companies charged with criminal behavior related to exploding chemicals and the fumes that came from those explosions after Hurricane Harvey.

The case will test if the states can hold companies, their decisions makers and personnel accountable for not handling their products safely.

Arkema’s Richard Rowe, the U.S. Chief executive of the company, and Leslie Comardelle, the plant manager, are charged with reckless emission of air contaminants. Michael Keough, then Vice President of Logistics, who helped coordinate the response to a situation in which some chemicals would explode was charged with assault on first responders who inhaled fumes after “a controlled explosion,” alleging that it was an assault on a public servant after select chemicals exploded.

The threat for these executives is a possible five years in jail for endangering the public and the company could be fined about a million dollars. All pleaded not guilty in court.

Related cases have made everything somewhat complicated. Arkema Inc. wants a pretrial consolidation of eight law suits for 750 plaintiffs that allege harm by chemical releases. On April 20, the company asked Texas Judicial Panel on Multi-district Litigation to appoint a pretrial judge to oversee the pending cases now in six district courts within Harris and Liberty Counties against 63 defendants. Defense attorneys say similar complaints are related to failure to prevent the release of the toxic fumes.

The executive defendants were indicted after the state environmental agencies determined that it was unnecessary to have explosions at the plant.

Volatile chemicals must be kept cold to prevent degrading and exploding, the prosecution says the chemicals should have been shipped out before the storm. Prosecutor Michael Doyle alleged that the flood-prone location was inside the 100-year floodplain, and storage warehouses as well as backup generators were likely to flood and fail in a storm.

The defense argues that the state is trying to make a criminal case out of “an act of God,” and that no one could have known about what inevitably happened.

Arkema attorney Letitia Quinones argued that moving the chemicals would have been more dangerous to residents. She blamed some of the first responders for being at the location without taking precautions.

Defense motions for a mistrial were denied.