By Lewis Spearman
HOUSTON – On October 1, Arkema SA and executives were acquitted of criminal charges related to events that followed Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Arkema executives were charged with the crime of felony assault related to failure to provide adequate emergency response information related to first responders entering into a location with toxic fumes. The company was earlier similarly indicted for failure to assess risks.
Although the acquittal bears directly on the responsibility of the company it does not necessarily end the lawsuits related to the incidents.
The same judge found that prosecutors had committed unintentional misconduct.
A 2018 US Chemical Safety Board final report indicated that Arkema had not considered flooding a “credible risk” although it is within the flooding plain and that agency urged better preparation for extreme weather.
CEO Richard Rowe, Plant Manager Leslie Comardelle were indicted in 2018 and in 2019 Mike Keough, Vice President of Logistics for assault. On September 30, 2020 Judge Belinda Hill dismissed the reckless endangerment charge against Rowe due to lack of evidence. Comardelle was not guilty in a directed verdict. Keough and Arkema had charges dropped last month related to the injuries of first responders.
Arkema hired Rusty Harding to preside over their legal representatives. It was he that began to point out the nature of the historic flood being an “Act of God.”
A company statement at that time said, “Our plant employees went to heroic lengths to protect the public, and when flooding overwhelmed their every effort, we proactively notified emergency responders and the public, days before the first fire started,” Arkema stated.
In 2019 Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg hired additional attorneys to prosecute environmental and safety crimes.
There had been talk of other indictments but charges were dropped related to failure to disclose the presence of certain chemicals when the Harris County Office of Emergency Management indicated they had been given a detailed list of all chemicals present at the facility.
Suspended last Spring, the trial started up again last month.
“Today’s ruling doesn’t change the fact that dangerous chemicals on Arkema property ignited and were belched in a cloud of toxic smoke over the surrounding communities, and a first responder, there protecting people is now on a lung transplant list,” said Dane Schiller, speaking for the District Attorney’s Office.
Arkema released a statement on October 1, in part it says, “We’re pleased to see the end of this trial, which should have never taken place at all. The facts of this case did not warrant any indictments, and we do not believe any indictments would have been granted but for the false information presented to the Grand Jury by prosecutors. The prosecutors in this case repeatedly, blatantly and unapologetically broke rules that are in place to protect us all by ensuring our fundamental right to a fair trial.
“We are pleased that Judge Belinda Hill found – not once but twice – that the prosecutors had committed misconduct.”