Liberty County sues Arkema plant owners for $1M

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Flames shoot from the Arkema plant in Crosby after Hurricane Harvey. (KTRK)

Liberty County officials filed a lawsuit against the chemical plant Arkema in Crosby, alleging violations of the Texas Clean Air Act, the Texas Water Code and the Texas Health and Safety Code.

The suit asked for at least $1 million plus any other associated fees with the plant's flooding and subsequent fires immediately after Hurricane Harvey.

It claims that because of the flooding, wastewater tanks overflowed spilling contaminants into floodwaters and that these explosions caused pollution by sending chemicals into the air.

BEFORE AND AFTER: Swipe left and right to see the Arkema site before and after Harvey

It's the third suit filed against the plant. Harris County filed a similar suit that is still in process.

In that suit, Harris County alleged similar wrongdoing. In addition, the county alleges that because the facility is in a floodplain, any buildings must have a permit under floodplain regulations. County records show Arkema doesn't have a permit for one or more of the structures on the property, the suit alleges.

First responders who say they became sick after responding to the plant during Harvey also sued-- saying the plant never gave them a heads up about what they were driving into. That case is pending in federal court.

After the plant flooded, highly-flammable chemicals that required refrigeration were left to heat up in the hot Texas sun, leading to those explosions.

Six months later, the plant is now facing the task of rebuilding and defending new charges against it.

Arkema says it had no way to prevent the plant explosions and no way to anticipate so much rain so quickly.

In at least one of Arkema's hazard mitigation plans filed with the federal government, plant officials acknowledged that flooding is a risk. The site sits in a FEMA "high-risk" floodplain that has flooded in the past, leading to a power failure. That time, the site only had six inches of water, a former plant worker said.

In that 2006 incident, strikingly similar to the ongoing incident, the plant flooded, lost power and materials ignited inside a warehouse.
In one of the several written violations over the years, the company was fined by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. There is no indication that the company made any changes in its backup systems in response.

Richard Renner, the company's CEO, told ABC13 Investigates he wasn't aware of the incident in 2006 and that they didn't anticipate six feet of water in the most recent flooding incident.

Renner insists the plant had multiple layers of backups in place at the time of the flooding. They all failed. When pressed about whether backup generators had been elevated as to not be inundated with water, plant officials said they didn't know.

A safety official with the plant this time around acknowledged they hadn't done enough to prevent the problems.

"Clearly that wasn't enough," said Arkema safety expert Darryl Roberts. "Clearly, as we go forward we will do something different."

In response to the latest suit being filed, an Arkema spokesperson took issue with the claims by Liberty County and called them false.

"Liberty County's lawsuit unfairly accuses Arkema and its employees of wrongdoing and contains misinformation that could unnecessarily alarm residents. The County and its residents could not have been seriously injured by Arkema's releases because all monitoring and testing results show no exceedances of Texas residential environmental standards in soil, surface water, ash or drinking water occurred at off-site properties," Janet Smith said.

"As everyone knows, including the people who filed this lawsuit, this was an extraordinary flooding event with unforeseeable consequences. Arkema was not at fault for these releases. No one - including the National Weather Service or the National Hurricane Center - predicted the record-breaking levels of rainfall that overwhelmed the multiple layers of back-up power and protections we had at our Crosby facility. Filing lawsuits is not the solution here. Arkema and its employees, like other businesses and individuals in Liberty County, suffered from this storm and we need to remain focused on recovery. Arkema will continue to cooperate with authorities, but we will strenuously defend against any and all unfounded claims."

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