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Hot, smoldering mystery: Pellet fire lasts for days, its cause uncertain

A smoldering fire that had broken out Easter weekend at a German Pellets silo in the Port of Port Arthur continues to warrant constant monitoring by Port Arthur Fire Department.

In a press briefing outside the gates of the Port, PAFD Fire Chief Larry Richard said the incident started late Saturday evening around 9:30 regarding elevated temperatures in the No. 2 silo.

Richard said investigators did not know how the fire started or how long the smoldering would last.

“The fire department responded and we were able to monitor the situation throughout the night without much change in temperature,” Richard said. “At approximately six Sunday morning, the temperature spiked and there was an active fire inside silo No. 2.”

Richard said the Port Neches Fire Department assisted with a ladder truck, and they were able to suppress the fire and “apply cooling” to the silo.

“Since that time, we have been applying cooling water to the silo and we have been continually monitoring the exterior temperature of the silo,” Richard said.

According to him, the pellets that are burning are made of sawdust, wood shavings and a one percent binder of wheat flour.

“So, it’s a wholly organic product that’s burning,” Richard said. “At this time, we’re just continuing to apply cooling water to keep the vessel cool.”

In response to possible complaints by residents in the area regarding the odor, Richard said PAFD has received some complaints but they have been directed to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

“Along with that, we have been monitoring the air,” he said.

Richard said the German Pellets facility has contracted an outside contractor to conduct air monitoring, as well as a neighboring facility at the Port.

“We haven’t received any actionable levels on air monitoring,” Richard said of PAFD’s efforts so far.

Richard said he and his responders are prepared for an extended stay.

“It’s not going to be an overnight thing,” he said. “Our goal is to do this as safely as possible.”

Regarding TCEQ involvement, Richard said, “TCEQ is involved with our incident command system, but they are not actively out monitoring the air. It’s the contractors who are monitoring.”

In separate questioning, TCEQ Media Relations Specialist Andrew Keese confirmed that TCEQ is conducting visible emissions and odor surveys in the adjacent neighborhoods.

“TCEQ is also responding to citizen complaints within TCEQ’s jurisdiction,” Keese said. “These investigations are ongoing.”

However, Keese said TCEQ was not performing or supervising any air monitoring operations outside of visible emissions and odor surveys.

“Contractors hired by German Pellets are conducting particulate monitoring,” Keese said.

As for any recommendations TCEQ might have for residents in the affected areas, Keese said, “This incident is currently under the command of the Port Arthur Fire Department.”

It is the second time this year a fire has broken out at the German Pellets storage facility.

The owner of the storage facility is currently filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Due to the fire on Feb. 27, the auction dates have been postponed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Courts in New Orleans and Tyler County.