PA meeting raises more questions than answers

Published 10:13 am Friday, May 5, 2017

Many questions were asked, but few answers were given at a community meeting Thursday evening in Port Arthur.

The Port Arthur Environmental Justice Coalition held a meet at the Westside Development Center to discuss and address residents’ concerns regarding the pellet fire that had broken out at one of German Pellets’ silos at the Port of Port Arthur.

The smoldering fire has been active since Easter weekend, and the resulting smoke and particulates in the air have raised health concerns among residents in the area.

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Among the officials present at the meeting, Port Arthur Fire Department Fire Chief Larry Richard was on hand to address the packed room at the center.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Richard said of PAFD’s efforts.

Specifically, Richard said the Fire Department was piping in nitrogen on top of the smoldering pellets while pumping in carbon dioxide on the bottom.

In response to questions from the audience regarding cause and duration of the fire, Richard could not give an answer.

“We’re not going to guess what caused the fire,” Richard said.

Robert Havens, Deputy Fire Chief, said the PAFD is ready to add nitrogen to the other silos at the port if need be.

“We’re hoping to get all the product out of there,” Havens said about the affected pellet silo. “We’ve taken preliminary measures for the other silos.”

Havens stressed that the pellets that were burning were “all natural and all biodegradable” before listing their contents as pine, sawdust and pine bark with “wheat flour to act as a binding agent.”

Havens said, “We have issued a stopgap order to offload any product from the silo and to restrict them from loading any new product.”

Havens said the PAFD is insisting on hazard analysis of the situation.

However, one of the audience members in attendance asked about the potential danger of the sawdust as a fibrous material that could adhere to a person’s lungs.

Havens said, “The only thing you could really do is to stay out of it.”

This prompted several raised voices and questions about what safety measures were being taken by the company, fire department and other organizations, as well as why the more vulnerable members of society such as children and the elderly were not moved out of the area due to health concerns.

No clear answers were given.

The Environmental Justice Coalition chairman John Beard said, “Frankly, it shouldn’t have happened, but it did.”

“If you see something, if you smell something, you have to call somebody.”

Beard cast aspersions on the fact that the company monitoring air quality was one hired by German Pellets.

“As (Ronald) Reagan said, ‘Trust, but verify,’ Beard said. “We have to do something to protect ourselves. Save your receipts, keep a journal. We need this information in order to defend ourselves.”

Brian Gaston, Chief Restructuring Officer for German Pellets, was present to represent the company.

“We feel our presence here is long overdue,” Gaston said.

Gaston attributed the company’s delay in responding to the fire as a result of bankruptcy and the desire to respond in a safe and appropriate manner.

“Part of the delay was because we wanted to get everything safely done,” Gaston said. “There were a number of unique things about the fire and we didn’t want to make it worse.”

Gaston said the company worked as quickly as possible to respond. In coming out to the public and acknowledging some of their concerns, Gaston said, “It took us longer than we would have liked.”

According to Gaston, German Pellets has upgraded their hotline for concerned citizens from a limited phone service to a 24-hour-a-day and seven-day-a-week hotline for people.

However, when members from the audience attempted to call the number, including Gaston himself, they said no one answered.

Still, Gaston said to call the hotline because it was the company’s way of collecting information and complaints from Port Arthur residents affected by the pellet fire.

Jerrell Jones was one of the many residents in attendance and said his concerns were not properly addressed by German Pellets.

Jones lives in the affected area on West 6th Street.

He said he has two kids who are on breathing treatments whose dosages had to be doubled since the incident at the silo.

“My house smells like smoke,” Jones said.

He listed symptoms like coughing, sneezing and a sore throat as a result of the pellet fire smoke.

“We’re just concerned and we’re getting no answers,” Jones said. “We’re going to try to take the proper channels and get with the community.”