An aerial view of the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 31, 2017. On Friday, a grand jury indicted a chemical plant and its leaders, charging them with releasing harmful chemicals into the air and water that put residents and first responders at risk in the wake of the storm. Photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez/Air National Guard/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 4 (UPI) -- An international chemical company and its leaders in Houston were indicted by a grand jury Friday, charged with releasing chemicals into the air that put residents and first responders at risk in the wake of Hurricane Harvey last August.
A series of indictments by a Harris County grand jury say Arkema North America, CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle acted "recklessly" after the plant caught fire as Harvey dumped record-setting rain on the area, something prosecutors say was preventable if the company had taken safety measures suggested by its insurance company a year prior.
"As the hurricane approached, Arkema was more concerned about production and profit than people," Alexander Forrest, chief of the Harris County District Attorney's environmental crimes division, said in a news release.
At least 88 deaths were blamed on Harvey. Some 80 percent were caused by drowning. Surprisingly, just 22 percent of the 37 deaths recorded in Houston's Harris County -- the epicenter of the disaster -- occurred inside the 100-year flood zone.
The Crosby plant is located about 30 miles from downtown Houston. As water began to rise, Arkema's refrigerated containers holding thousands of pounds of the plant's chemicals lost power. Over the next several days, the chemicals became too hot and began to degrade, sending black smoke hundreds of feet into the air.
Along with government lawsuits filed against Arkema, others have filed suits including neighbors and first responders, many saying they were sickened by the chemicals, which also seeped into the water.
The lawsuits allege Arkema was negligent because it was warned a year before by its insurer about the risks that could occur by flooding.
Federal documents show Arkema, partially located in a floodplain, was not prepared for even a much smaller flood.
"Companies don't make decisions, people do," Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement. "Responsibility for pursuing profit over the health of innocent people rests with the leadership of Arkema."
Arkema spokesperson Janet Smith criticized the indictments, which she called "astonishing."
"It is outrageous to assert that Arkema or any of its employees behaved criminally. No one needs a reminder that Hurricane Harvey devastated a wide region," Smith said. "It overcame the preparedness efforts of millions of individuals, and many, many companies and government agencies. 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 company's attorney, Rusty Hardin, said the suit is unwarranted.
"There has never been an indictment like this in Texas or any other state," 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."
If convicted, Rowe and Comardelle could face up to five years in prison and the company could face up to a $1 million fine.