Houston Matters

Expert Says Chemical Industry Closely Following Upcoming Arkema Trial

Tracy Hester, an environmental law expert at UH’s Law Center, calls it “a bellwether case”

An expert in environmental law told Houston Matters Monday the upcoming trial against Arkema and two of its executives over the emission of pollutants at its Crosby plant because of a fire that occurred during Hurricane Harvey is being closely followed by the chemical industry.

Professor Tracy Hester.

A hearing regarding the trial was held in Houston Monday and Tracy Hester, professor of Environmental Law at the University of Houston’s Law Center, said this is “a bellwether case.”

“There is a lot of interest, a lot of attention, a lot of concern,” Hester said, “among industrial operators who are watching this case because, essentially, it creates the possibility that even companies that think that they’ve gotten their compliance in a row and they’re complying with regulations may still face possible criminal liability if they are deemed to (have) acted in a reckless fashion, which isn’t really defined by a particular statutory requirement.”

The company —as well as Arkema’s CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle— are facing charges of recklessly emitting pollutants into the air during Hurricane Harvey. Hester noted that, under the Texas Clean Air Act, that is a felony.

Hester said Rowe and Comardelle could be sentenced to up to five years in prison and the company could face a penalty of at least $1 million.

The expert also said the defendants are asking the court to tell the Harris County District Attorney’s Office they can’t get certain information they have requested.

The DA has sent subpoenas to other companies that also handle hazardous chemicals to find out what they did when Harvey occurred to provide a baseline for comparison and Hester said “the subpoenas are being fought by the defense attorneys by essentially saying that that’s not appropriate information to get.”

Arkema has requested a trial date for early next year and Hester thinks the company is “trying to get the criminal matter resolved because they’re also looking at other lawsuits.” The Harris County Attorney’s Office is suing Arkema on civil charges for violations of Texas environmental laws and the company also faces other lawsuits.

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