Almost one year ago, as Hurricane Harvey’s rains pummeled the Bayou City, a separate emergency took place at a chemical plant outside of Houston — a facility run by Arkema, a French chemical company. The flooding had shut off the plant’s ability to cool highly volatile chemicals, resulting in a series of fires and a plume of black smoke.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office says the company unnecessarily put residents and first responders at risk, and it indicted two Arkema executives over the summer, says Matt Dempsey, data editor for the Houston Chronicle’s Investigations team.
Dempsey says a grand jury found that Arkema didn’t prepare enough, or take reasonable steps to prevent the problem. That includes removing organic peroxides from the area, which is something other chemical companies before the storm hit. Arkema contends that it did everything right and had the proper plans in place — it had considered removing the dangerous chemicals but then decided against it for fear that trucks hauling the material out would get stuck in the storm. Still, Dempsey and the Investigation team found that the plant would have been sorely prepared for a natural disaster with even half the flooding that came from Harvey.
“Their generators weren’t elevated high enough to avoid more than three feet of flooding,” Dempsey says.
The environmental and health consequences of the Arkema flooding are unclear, but Dempsey says that people living nearby in Crosby reported seeing tarballs fall into their yard.
“We know a large amount of chemical was released both into the floodwaters and into the air,” Dempsey says. “[But] tracking back specific health problems to specific incidents is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do.”
Written by Caroline Covington.