Energy & Environment

No Convictions In Arkema Trial After Judge Drops Remaining Charges

After months of delays, hearings and accusations of misconduct, the trial over a chemical fire during Hurricane Harvey ended Thursday after a judge dropped the final charges.

Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle
Leslie Comardelle, former Arkema plant manager in Crosby, left and his defense attorney Paul Nugent, right, are shown during the Arkema Inc. criminal trial at Harris County Criminal Courthouse 1201 Franklin St., Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. A Harris County judge dropped charges against Comardelle on Oct. 1, 2020, in a directed verdict ending the case.

A Harris County judge has dropped the remaining charges in the criminal trial against French chemical manufacturer Arkema and its executives, leaving county prosecutors with no convictions in a case tied to a chemical fire during Hurricane Harvey.

In what was the second directed verdict in two days, Visiting Judge Belinda Hill ended the case against the company and former Crosby plant manager Leslie Comardelle, finding not enough legal evidence for a reasonable jury to reach a different conclusion. They had faced felony charges for reckless emission of air pollutants.

University of Houston environmental law Professor Tracy Hester said it’s rare for a judge to issue a directed verdict, especially in a high-profile prosecution involving an environmental indictment.

"But this trial has been unusual, its entire course,” he said. “Counts have been dropping one by one over successive disputes over prosecutorial misconduct and insufficiency in the indictment. The last piece fell off the jalopy today."

In a statement, Dane Schiller, a spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney's Office said prosecutors were disappointed with the outcome.

“We trust Harris County juries to weigh the evidence and decide whether a crime was committed; it is disappointing and frustrating this jury will not get to render a decision,” he said. “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."

The move to acquit the company and its former plant manager comes after months of delays, hearings, dropped charges and accusations of prosecutorial misconduct.

Rusty Hardin, an attorney for Arkema, said the case was rife with misconduct and that prosecutors tried to criminalize a natural disaster.

“I've never seen such a you-know-what show in my life in the criminal justice system,” he said. “This company, three years ago, had employees perform heroically, trying to deal with what all the evidence in this trial has shown was a totally unprecedented natural disaster."

Hardin said he polled jury members after the trial ended and was told they wouldn’t have convicted Arkema and its former Crosby plant manager.

The case stemmed from a fire that broke out during Harvey, after five feet of water flooded Arkema’s Crosby chemical plant, shorting out main and backup power and causing refrigerated trailers of organic peroxides to burst into flames.

The fire lasted for days and sent thick plumes of hazardous smoke into the air, the exposure to which caused 21 people to seek medical attention and 200 people in the area to evacuate from their homes for a week.

Prosecutors had argued that Arkema should have moved its chemicals off-site in the face of the approaching storm, while the defense maintained that Hurricane Harvey was an Act of God that nobody could have anticipated.

“We're pleased to see the end of this trial, which should never have taken place at all,” read a statement from Arkema spokeswoman Janet Smith. “The facts of this case did not warrant any indictments, and we do not believe any indictment would have been granted but for the false information presented to the Grand Jury by prosecutors. The prosecutors in this case repeatedly, blatantly and unapologetically broke rules that are in place to protect us all by ensuring our fundamental right to a fair trial.”

Judge Hill issued a similar verdict on Wednesday, dropping former Arkema CEO Richard Rowe from the case, who had also been charged with reckless emission of air pollutants.

The company and its Vice President of Logistics Mike Keough had faced felony charges for assault of a public servant, though the DA moved to dismiss those charges earlier last month.

The case was being watched closely by industry as it could have had implications for how companies are held responsible when disaster strikes.

Hester, the UH law professor, said if the case had resulted in a conviction it would have sent a strong signal to the petrochemical industry about how they need to prepare for disasters. But the fact that the case fell apart doesn’t mean the dialogue is over.

"There’s a lot of attention to the risks posed to Harris County and the city of Houston by industrial incidents, explosions, fires releases,” he said. “And as a result, I don’t think that the failure to reach a verdict, in this case, means that that examination, the risk of future criminal prosecutions, is over."

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