HOUSTON - A new federal lawsuit claims the health of neighbors near the Arkema plant in Crosby could be at risk after their lawyers say their scientific tests show toxic chemicals on their property far beyond the 1.5-mile evacuation zone.
Properties around the Arkema plant are littered with toxins, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, and dioxins the suit claims.
One of those properties belongs to Shannan Wheeler, who lives a little more than three miles from the plant. He saw the first two chemical fires, but it was the third fire that really got his attention.
"We actually heard and felt the boom out here," Wheeler said.
That third fire was the one Arkema helped start.
The smoke smelled a little like ammonia as it crept toward his home, well outside the evacuation zone, Wheeler said.
"It didn't rise, it simply spread like a rolling wave," Wheeler said. "Right over our house."
When Wheeler ventured out the next day, in a garden bed just off the front porch, a black sludge along with brittle, lacey, black ash showed up across his one-acre property.
Wheeler said he'd never seen the sludge or ash before.
"It has to be from that plant," Wheeler said. "It came from that fire. Period."
Wheeler developed a rash on his wrists as he picked up grass clippings two weeks after the fires, he said.
"I thought I got into ants, washed it off, no ants," Wheeler said.
It felt like a chemical burn, he said. His lawsuit, filed Monday, says a doctor diagnosed it as contact dermatitis.
Kevin Thompson is an environmental attorney who's been working with Wheeler and other clients in neighborhoods all around the Arkema plant. He is one of several attorneys filing the class action suit against Arkema.
"This is a chemical release," Thompson said. "The first thing we talked about is the ash. I call it 'alien ash.'"
When Thompson's team tested that ash and black sludge, tests "reveal the presence of metals and chemicals linked to products either stored or manufactures at the Arkema" plant or "suspected to be created in the spills, fire, and explosions," according to the lawsuit.
"It would have blown up and out," Thompson said.
The lawsuit claims tests show traces of potentially dangerous chemicals, not just in soil and ash but inside people's homes.
"We found residue inside people's homes on the walls," Thompson said.
It's unclear from the lawsuit if the alleged levels are high enough to require remediation, but Wheeler wants more information quickly.
"We need answers."
Arkema has been slow to provide them, Wheeler said. The company refers us to EPA air tests which showed no concerning levels of toxic chemicals following the fire, which started in the midst of unprecedented flooding. Arkema was caught by surprise when redundant systems to prevent fires failed, a company spokesperson said.
Thompson is asking a court to order health monitoring, soil remediation and punitive damages against the company for what he alleges is Arkema's negligence and willful acts.
"The act of God was Harvey, the act of man was not being prepared for Harvey," Thompson said.
Arkema would not directly respond to the lawsuit, but issued this statement:
"We won't comment on specific ongoing litigation. Based on testing results received to date, Arkema has not detected chemicals in off-site ash, soil, surface or drinking water samples that exceeded Residential Protective Concentration Levels established by TCEQ for soil and groundwater. We do not know what these lawyers tested for. We are cooperating with authorities in ongoing investigations and we will not comment further on these lawyers' accusations."
Arkema did not share those results with us.
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