German Pellets silo no longer smoking, though much work remains

Published 8:45 am Friday, June 30, 2017

The good news is, the smoke is gone.

The bad news is everything else.

Because while the smoke is gone, the German Pellets facility at the Port of Port Arthur is still months from getting to a point where it can be used, let alone auctioned off.

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And that’s not good for anybody.

The facility has been a headache for city officials and for Westside residents who have complained about the smell and the smoke from the burning structure since a silo caught fire April 15. Residents have also been critical of the company’s public response to the fire.

On Thursday, Brian Gaston, the chief restructuring officer, the man heading up the bankruptcy proceedings, said he sympathized with the residents.

“There have been industrial incidents over the years and I think there’s an expectation of how companies respond and we were not effective in that,” he said.

However, he wanted to assure residents the company has been working hard to handle the remaining work with as much speed and safety as possible.

“The first focus was to get this out,” he said.

Easier said that done.

Pellets are manufactured in the U.S. for sale in Europe where they are considered a renewable fuel source. So, as Gaston noted, the pellets were built to burn. And burn they did.

While authorities tried various ultimately ineffectual fire suppressant techniques inside the silo, the metal silo was weakening by the day, but firefighters could not simply rush in and douse the smoldering pellets because the sudden introduction of oxygen could have resulted in a much bigger blaze.

The matter was made worse when, in early June, the whole silo collapsed, leaving smoldering pellets under a pile of dangerous metal.

Gaston explained how the metal protected the fire, so until that was all removed, the pellets continued to smolder.

“We really didn’t know the full difficulty of what we would have,” he said. “We thought maybe the smoldering would create a ripple effect. But I don’t think we appreciated how many twists and turns we’d have along the way.”

And that long, winding road isn’t over yet.

Gaston was brought on by the company 13 months ago to prepare the company’s assets for auction. The Port Arthur pellet silos were set to go to auction this spring. Then, in February, a fire broke out on the company’s ship loader (a conveyance structure to move the pellets from the silos to ships), scuttling those plans.

Then there was another fire. This time in a silo.

And then the silo fell over.

When silo No. 2 toppled, tons of burning pellets spilled forth and nestled against silos one and three. Now No. 3 has a hot spot.

Gaston said the fire marshal has written up an investigation into the ship loader fire, and he said it’s not conclusive. He said he didn’t know what caused the silo fire, either, although that investigation has yet to conclude.

To be honest, Gaston said nobody even technically knows what started the hot spot in No. 3.

“We don’t know for sure if the hot spot development was a direct result of the collapse of not, but we’re pretty sure it was,” he said.

However, he said No. 3 seems to be under control, the result of better fire suppression. Gaston explained that workers are removing oxygen from the silo while also introducing liquid nitrogen to lower the temperatures and as of this week, the temperatures are stable.

Meanwhile, workers are scooping up the charred and spilled pellets and loading them into containers. When a container is filled, it is taken to the dump and dumped.

So far, 1,000 containers have been filled.

Gaston estimated there will be 1,000 more filled and taken to the dump.

“We’ve removed maybe half the contents of the pile,” he said, standing before a mountain of wet, ruined wooden pellets.

He then turned his attention to the third silo, its side blackened.

“We’re watching it very closely. We don’t want it to be another one of these,” he said, pointing, again, to the pile.

At present, Gaston said the city and the fire department have shuttered commercial operations at the facility until the mess is cleaned up and No. 3 put in order. The work stoppage in Port Arthur means the company’s Woodville plant, which manufactures the pellets, is also closed because, without a place to warehouse the pellets, the company cannot make the things.

Once the mess is gone and the silo’s hotspot gone, Gaston said the city and the fire department will do a thorough safety inspection to ensure the company can operate safely before they allow it do open again.

He said that will require months of work.

In the meantime, Gaston said the company has set up a website to alert residents of the air quality.

The site is and the air quality reports come from air monitors the company has installed throughout the city. In addition, there is also a phone number to report incidents, (409) 200-3313.

In the months going forward, Gaston said the company is also going to invest in better safety equipment.

“We’re going to make new investments and have new protocols to make sure this never happens again,” he said.

He said the company is also looking at ways it could help the community. Westside residents have complained the smoke has created breathing issues, and Gaston said the company hopes to be able to do something to help—though he couldn’t say what that might be or when it would be.

In general, he said, the whole incident is still being taken in.

“We’re still trying to get our heads around the magnitude of what’s happened,” he said.

As a chief restructuring officer, Gaston’s specialty is in finance and, for the last 12 years, he’s helped some of the biggest companies in the world sort out the arcane and complex details of bankruptcy.

He’s done 30 so far and of those, he said, none have been as complicated as this.

“It’s at the top of that list,” he said. “And I worked on General Motors.”