HOUSTON (AP) — A judge on Thursday dismissed the criminal case against a chemical manufacturer and one of its former employees over a fire at its plant near Houston during Hurricane Harvey, saying prosecutors failed to present sufficient evidence to support the charges.
A day after she dismissed the charge against the CEO of Arkema Inc., Judge Belinda Hill tossed the remaining charges against the Pennsylvania-based company and former plant manager Leslie Comardelle right before jurors were due to hear closing arguments in the trial.
Arkema, a subsidiary of a French chemical manufacturer, and Comardelle each faced a charge of reckless emission of an air contaminant over the ignition of organic peroxides at the company’s plant in Crosby, northeast of Houston, during the 2017 storm.
The case proved problematic for prosecutors, as Hill dismissed three other charges earlier in the trial, which resumed last week after a six-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hill had also sanctioned prosecutors over withholding evidence in the case.
Legal experts predicted that prosecutors would have a difficult time proving the actions by Arkema and its employees were willful and reckless.
If convicted, Arkema could have faced up to a $1 million fine and Comardelle could have been sentenced to up to five years in prison.
At a news conference later Thursday, Rusty Hardin, one of Arkema's attorneys, said what happened at the plant “was a natural disaster and never a crime." Hardin said defense attorneys spoke with jurors after the trial ended and were told the jury would not have convicted in the case.
Hardin and other defense attorneys accused prosecutors of not thoroughly investigating the case, bringing charges that were politically motivated and withholding information that would have benefitted the defense.
“This company, its employees and everyone associated with it believes strongly in a safe and good environment. They did everything you’re supposed to do here," Hardin said.
Comardelle told reporters that he and his team did all they could to protect the community, but “Harvey was an unprecedented disaster and there’s nothing else we could have done to prepare for it."
Janet Smith, an Arkema spokeswoman, said the “trial sought to criminalize the impact of a natural disaster that Harris County itself was not prepared for."
Prosecutors were disappointed and frustrated jurors didn't get to make a decision in the case, said Dane Schiller, a spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
“Today’s ruling by a judge doesn’t change the fact that dangerous chemicals on Arkema property ignited and were belched in a cloud of toxic smoke over the surrounding communities, and a first responder there protecting people is now on a lung-transplant list," Schiller said.
Before Hill's ruling, prosecutors argued that Arkema and Comardelle were negligent for failing prepare the plant by moving the organic peroxides ahead of predicted catastrophic flooding from Harvey.
The storm dumped nearly 50 inches (127 centimeters) of rain in parts of the Houston area and caused 36 deaths locally. The power systems at the Arkema plant were overwhelmed by flooding, and without power to keep the organic peroxides made at the facility cold, the compounds caught fire and exploded. The fire forced the evacuation of more than 200 residents and sent 21 people, including first responders, to the hospital.
Arkema has argued that the fire was caused by an act of God — the hurricane — and could not have been prevented.
The end of the trial came a day after Hill made a similar ruling to end the case against Arkema CEO Richard Rowe, who faced the same charge as Comardelle. Earlier this month, Hill had dismissed assault charges Arkema and another employee had faced related to injuries two deputies suffered during the fire.
The U.S Chemical Safety Board said Arkema worked to keep equipment that stabilized its organic peroxides, used to make such things as plastic resins, from losing power. But Arkema didn’t consider flooding of its safety systems “a credible risk,” even though the plant was inside a flood zone.
Due to the pandemic, the trial was being held in a courtroom that has been set up at NRG Arena, which usually hosts concerts and special events. The public was allowed to watch the trial through a livestream from a courtroom in the downtown criminal courthouse.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70