HOUSTON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Opening statements began on Thursday in criminal charges against the U.S. arm of a French company and three executives over chemical fires that burned for days and injured emergency workers called to the site.
The Arkema SA plant outside of Houston in 2017 became waterlogged and lost power needed to keep volatile chemicals cooled after Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches (1.27 m) of rain on the area. Twenty-one people sought treatment for exposure to fumes from three chemical fires that erupted.
A jury of nine women and three men will consider whether Arkema and three executives could have prevented the fires amid massive flooding. Texas prosecutors also allege the company failed to adequately warn first responders of the dangers.
Executives face up to five years in jail on an endangerment charge and the company could be hit with a fine of up to $1 million. All pleaded not guilty on Thursday.
Defense attorneys accused the state of trying to “criminalize” a natural disaster, and insisted Arkema could not have foreseen the extent of flooding that disrupted backup power needed to keep the volatile chemicals from igniting.
The trial began after a series of petrochemical fires in the region last year fouled the skies over several cities, raising worries about chemical industry practices. The state’s top environmental regulator called for a compliance review after businesses and schools were evacuated by fires at sites making gasoline, rubber, resins or storing petrochemicals.
Arkema, its U.S. chief executive, Richard Rowe, and the manager of the company’s Crosby, Texas, manufacturing plant, Leslie Comardelle, are charged with the “reckless” release of pollution. Arkema and former logistics chief Michael Keough also were charged with assault over the injuries to emergency workers.
The Crosby plant produced organic peroxides that are used to make plastic countertops, consumer goods and automotive parts. More than 350,000 pounds of the chemicals ignited and burned during three separate fires, a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found. (Reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston Writing by Gary McWilliams Editing by Matthew Lewis)