HOUSTON — Seven sheriff's deputies and medical emergency responders who say they were sickened by a chemical fire at a plant outside Houston that flooded during Harvey sued the owner Thursday for gross negligence, seeking $1 million in damages.
A state judge granted a temporary restraining order to prevent plant owner Arkema Inc. from removing evidence or altering the scene, said Kimberly Spurlock, the attorney for the plaintiffs. She said a hearing was set for Sept. 22.
The suit alleges Arkema failed to properly store the estimated 18 tons of chemicals that burned or prepare for a major flood even though it was a foreseeable event.
Record rains from Harvey flooded the plant 25 miles northeast of Houston with six feet of water, according to a report Arkema filed with the state. The storm knocked out power, and therefore the refrigeration needed to keep the chemicals stable.
Spurlock called Arkema's preparations "woefully inadequate" and questioned why the first responders did not know what chemicals were blowing up or the risks.
"They weren't told to wear masks, They weren't told to go in there with safety equipment and they're suffering as a result," Spurlock said.
Arkema said in a statement that it will "vigorously defend" the lawsuit.
"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," the company said.
The chemical compounds — organic peroxides used to make a gamut of products from plastics to paints — became unstable and exploded in flames more than 30 feet high early on Aug. 31, spewing an acrid plume of black smoke.
The Harris County sheriff's deputies who sued were manning the 1.5-mile (2.41-kilometer) perimeter of an evacuation zone set two days earlier after plant workers abandoned the facility, warning of impending disaster.
The suit says they doubled over vomiting, gasped for air and "began to fall ill in the middle of the road."
No one from Arkema warned of toxic fumes, it says, and when medical personnel arrived to help they were overcome "even before exiting their vehicle."
Some deputies jumped inside their vehicles and drove themselves to the hospital.
Later that day, local authorities told reporters 15 officers were treated for respiratory irritation and released.
The last of the organic peroxides were ignited Sunday by fire officials in a controlled burn. Neighbors were allowed to return home the following day.
Neither Arkema, Texas nor the federal Environmental Protection Agency have released results of air monitoring done by the EPA during the fire. Texas environmental regulators have declined to provide The Associated Press with a list of the Arkema plant's chemical inventory, saying they are confidential under the state homeland security act.
A 2016 analysis led by Texas A&M University researchers identified Arkema's facility as one of biggest risks in a corridor with the country's greatest concentration of petrochemical plants.
In accident plans Arkema submitted to the EPA in 2014, executives identified hurricanes and power loss as potential hazards. Yet the plans, which were supposed to address worst-case scenarios, didn't explain what Arkema would do if faced with either.
Texas' environmental commission penalized the plant at least three times.
In June 2006, Arkema failed to prevent unauthorized emissions during a two-hour warehouse fire. In February, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Arkema more than $90,000 for of 10 serious safety violations found during an inspection.