Medical workers and police hospitalized after exposure to explosion fumes are suing chemical maker Arkema, claiming that the company was negligent in managing the chemical disaster at its plant near Houston after Harvey.
The lawsuit, filed in the Harris County district court Thursday, claims that Arkema did not warn first responders that fumes from fires at the plant could be toxic.
At least 15 staffers from the Harris County Sheriff's office were taken to the hospital on Aug. 31 after chemicals at the plant began igniting. Seven people are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and all were hospitalized after being exposed to fumes, according to the complaint.
Flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey cut electrical power to Arkema's plant in Crosby, Texas, shutting down refrigerators. As a result, containers of organic peroxides — a family of chemicals manufactured by the company — warmed up and began to burn in the early morning on Aug. 31, according to a company release.
Arkema said authorities established a 1.5-mile evacuation zone around the plant. Police from the Harris County Sheriff's office secured the scene.
Shortly after the first set of the containers began exploding early Thursday morning, police at the scene began "vomiting, unable to breathe," according to the complaint. When emergency medical personnel arrived, they were also incapacitated.
The complaint also states that the plaintiffs relied on Arkema executives' assurances during a press conference that the fumes were not toxic, and suffered as a result.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said that Arkema would "vigorously defend" the lawsuit that the company described as "gravely mistaken."
“We reject any suggestion that we failed to warn of the danger of breathing the smoke from the fires at our site, or that we ever misled anyone. To the contrary, we pleaded with the public, for their own safety, to respect the 1.5 mile evacuation zone imposed by the unified command well prior to any fire," the spokesperson said.
At a hearing on Thursday, the court granted a request by the plaintiffs' team to access preserved burn residue on Arkema's facility, and potentially take samples themselves.
"Really what we need to know is what type of chemical affected them," Mo Aziz, a partner at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz, one of the two Texas firms representing the group said. "Those type of effects don’t come from a camp fire."
Arkema reported more fires on the afternoon of Sept. 1, as more chemicals began igniting. On Sept. 3, the Harris County Fire Marshall burned down six remaining containers of chemicals at the plant. According to regulatory filings by the company, the events released a total estimated 300 pounds of volatile organic compounds.
On Thursday, Arkema reported emissions from another facility in Pasadena, Texas, which also experienced a power failure during Harvey. This caused the release of 700 pounds of methyl acetate and 1,200 pounds of methyl acrylate, according to company filings.
This article was updated with comments from Mo Aziz, a partner at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz.
This article was updated with a statement from Arkema.
Nidhi Subbaraman is a Science Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Nidhi Subbaraman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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