Smoke rises from the Arkema chemical manufacturing and storage facility that burst into flames after Hurricane Harvey's floodwaters knocked out the equipment used to cool the plant's volatile chemicals on September 1, 2017 in Crosby, Texas (Photo: AFP)
French chemical manufacturer Arkema was indicted Friday in Texas over the release of a "toxic cloud" at its plant near Houston during historic flooding last year caused by Hurricane Harvey.
The storm wreaked havoc in Houston and its environs, hovering over the area for a week and dumping record amounts of rainfall.
An Arkema-owned chemical plant in Crosby, Texas caught fire in the aftermath, as six feet of floodwaters disrupted electrical power to cooling systems that were keeping volatile chemicals from overheating and catching fire.
The resulting thick plume of black smoke required the evacuation of hundreds of residents in a 1.5-mile radius around the plant. Nearly two dozen people received medical treatment for exposure to fumes and smoke.
A grand jury in Harris County, which includes the Houston area, charged Arkema North America, its CEO and a plant manager with "recklessly" releasing chemicals into the air.
CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle face up to five years in prison, if convicted. Arkema could be fined as much as $1 million.
"Those who poison our environment will be prosecuted when the evidence justifies it," 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."
The company defended itself by pointing to the findings in May of the US Chemical Safety Board, which investigated the accident.
If found that Arkema had safety procedures in place for extreme weather, but had not anticipated the possibility that the plant could be inundated with as much water as it received.
Company attorney Rusty Hardin in a statement called the indictment "unprecedented," because it was connected to a natural disaster at a scale the area had never before encountered.
"Harris County will have the daunting task of trying to prove that Arkema anticipated the possibility of six feet of floodwater and then decided not to prepare for it. This will prove to be impossible, because it's not what happened," Hardin said.
Harvey killed at least 68 people, flooded 300,000 structures and displaced some 40,000 people.