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Judge tosses case over chemical plant fire during Harvey

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...

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