A grand jury has indicted a chemical manufacturer and two of its leaders, saying they were responsible for a plant in Texas “recklessly” releasing a toxic cloud during Hurricane Harvey last year, officials said Friday.
The company, Arkema North America, its chief executive, Richard Rowe, and the manager of its plant in Crosby, Tex., Leslie Comardelle, were indicted, according to a statement from Kim Ogg, the district attorney in Harris County.
The indictment charged that they all had a role in the chemical release, which risked serious harm to residents and emergency responders, the statement said. Prosecutors maintain the release was preventable.
Chemicals at the plant had to be kept frozen to avoid bursting into flames, but temperatures increased after floodwaters knocked out power. As a result, the chemicals exploded on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, 2017.
More than 200 people who lived near the plant had to be evacuated and could not return to their homes for more than a week. Twenty-one people sought medical attention after reporting they were exposed to fumes and smoke.
“Companies don’t make decisions, people do,” Ms. Ogg said. “Responsibility for pursuing profit over the health of innocent people rests with the leadership of Arkema.”
If convicted, Mr. Comardelle and Mr. Rowe would face up to five years in prison and the company could be fined up to $1 million. They were each charged with reckless emission of air contaminant and endangerment of persons under the Texas Water Code.
In a statement, the company called the indictment “outrageous,” noting that the county Flood Control District reported the volume and duration of rain that fell in the area around the chemical plant had a probability of occurring once every 5,000 to 20,000 years.
“It is hard to believe anyone would seek to criminalize the way in which one facility was impacted by such a crushing natural disaster,” the statement said.
Lawyers for Mr. Rowe described the hurricane as an act of God, and “outside of his domain,” and lawyers for Mr. Comardelle said prosecutors’ premise for seeking the indictment was untested in Texas courts. They said Mr. Comardelle and his crew “acted heroically working around the clock throughout the storm, trying to protect the plant and the public.”
The hurricane devastated a swath of Texas stretching from the Houston area into Louisiana, bringing with it 50 inches of rainfall in some places and killing at least 39 people.
A lawyer for Arkema North America, Rusty Hardin, said the indictment was unprecedented, adding that the company and its workers were victims of the hurricane as much as everyone else in the county.
“All the experts agreed this was an act of God of biblical proportions, never before seen and never anticipated by anyone,” Mr. Hardin said. “It would set an ominous precedent if a company could be held criminally liable for impact suffered as a result of the historic flooding of Hurricane Harvey that no one, including Harris County itself, was prepared for.”
The plant in Crosby manufactured organic peroxides used to produce consumer goods, such as solid surface countertops and polystyrene cups and plates. They had to be kept below 32 degrees Fahrenheit to keep them from decomposing and catching fire, the United States Chemical Safety Board said in a report.
The heavy rainfall caused the plant to lose power and backup power, the board said. The peroxides were moved to refrigerated trailers, which were then moved to higher ground, but three could not be relocated.
“With refrigeration on those trailers lost, there was nothing to stop the chemicals inside from heating up and catching fire,” the board said.
Mihir Zaveri contributed to this report.