In scathing lawsuit, first responders describe vomiting, gasping at Texas chemical plant fire

Washington Post

A group of first responders exposed to smoke from a Crosby, Texas, chemical plant fire after Hurricane Harvey are suing the owner of the plant for more than $1 million, saying that they vomited and gasped for air in the middle of the road in a scene the suit describes as "nothing less than chaos."

The responders allege that the plant owner, Arkema, minimized the dangers of exposure to the fire and failed to warn the responders manning the perimeter of the mandatory 1.5 mile evacuation area to move further away from the fumes after the first of nine trailers full of volatile organic peroxide burst into flames in the early nighttime hours of Aug. 29.

"Immediately upon being exposed to the fumes from the explosion, and one by one, the police officers and first responders began to fall ill in the middle of the road," says the lawsuit, which was filed in a Harris County, Texas, court on Thursday. The responders' lawyer Mo Aziz said they initially saw no smoke in the darkness.

"Emergency personnel arrived on scene, and even before exiting their vehicle, they became overcome by the fumes as well," the lawsuit adds. "The scene was nothing less than chaos. Police officers were doubled over vomiting, unable to breathe. Medical personnel, in their attempts to provide assistance to the officers, became overwhelmed and they too began to vomit and gasp for air."

The lawsuit also said that some police officers, unable to abandon their vehicles with weapons in them, drove themselves to the nearest hospital. Other responders were taken by ambulance.

The company said it regretted that anyone suffered harm, particularly first responders.

"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," Arkema said in a statement. " 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. We will vigorously defend a lawsuit that we believe is gravely mistaken."

The responders said they were at the 1.5 mile perimeter.

Separately, the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday ordered Arkema, a French multinational company, to provide a detailed timeline of events and to respond within 10 days to a series of questions about the handling of organic peroxides, which are combustible if not kept refrigerated, the amount of chemical materials, and the measures taken in advance to guard against flooding and loss of electricity.

After the loss of refrigeration led to an evacuation of the plant, Arkema executives and the Harris County fire marshal's office warned people to stay at least 1.5 miles away, a distance the lawsuit calls "arbitrary."

Arkema and fire officials have avoided calling the smoke from the fires toxic.

The company initially called the smoke inhaled by police officers as a "non-toxic irritant." When pressed by reporters at an Aug 31 press conference Rich Rennard, president of Arkema's North American operations, said "the smoke is certainly noxious." But he added that toxicity is "a relative thing." And he said "it's not a chemical release that's happening, and I want to be clear about that."At another press conference, Rennard was asked whether responders should "consider that ash to be more dangerous than something from a campfire or normal fire?" He replied that "it's debris that would be similar to a house fire."

Asked on Aug. 31 about how dangerous the chemical fire was, Robert Royall, assistant chief of emergency operations for the Harris County Fire Marshal's office, told The Post: "That's really relative. If you're standing right next to something and you had a chemical release, it would probably be pretty dangerous. But we have a mile and half safety radius and there's nobody in that plant." He added, "You don't go stick your head in a barbecue pit or anything. You wouldn't want to breath that smoke in.''

The lawsuit was filed by Houston attorneys Kimberely Spurlock and Misty Hataway-Coné of Spurlock & Associates and MoAziz of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz. Collectively, they are representing a group of seven first responders who claim to have been injured from a release of toxic chemicals from the Arkema plant. About 15 responders were treated for exposure.

The suit accuses Arkema of negligence for failing to adequately prepare for an extreme flood, improperly storing chemicals at the plant, and not having a more reliable backup form of refrigeration.

The company has failed to answer questions from The Post about whether or not the backup diesel generators were elevated or whether they were resting on the floor of the plant, which eventually was under 6 feet of water.

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