Return to Transcripts main page


Residents Start Returning to Homes; Residents Return to Damaged Homes; Blast at Chemical Plant; Harris County, Texas Fire Marshall Office's Statement. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired August 31, 2017 - 09:30   ET



[09:34:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, for thousands of evacuees, the Brown Convention Center in Houston has been a refuge. CNN's Scott McLean is there.

Scott, what are you seeing now?


As the flood waters recede across many parts of Houston, the number of people staying in this shelter at the convention center, it is also going down. It peaked somewhere around 9,000 Tuesday into Wednesday night. They are now down to just about 2,500. As you can imagine, staying in a big convention hall on a cot with hundreds of other people, not the most comfortable living situation. So people are really trying to get to any type of shelter that they can, be it a hotel, a friend's house, or maybe even their flooded out home. They want to get out of this place despite the fact that volunteers here have made it as comfortable as they can.

I want to introduce you quickly to Vic Parker (ph). She is the shelter manager with the Red Cross.

And, Vic, you were telling me earlier, your concerned that people might actually come back here. Why?

VIC PARKER, SHELTER MANAGER: Yes, I think people are going to come back because once they go home, they've going to find their homes are filled with mold and other debris and they can't live in there. And also there may not be any electricity to that area yet.

[09:35:05] MCLEAN: Yes. What's your biggest concern at the shelter here?

PARKER: Our biggest concern is to keep them safe. We want them to know they have a roof over their head, they have showers, they have food and they have a place to sleep. So our biggest concern is safety and to be able to feed them so that they can be comfortable.

MCLEAN: Well, hopefully they don't come back.


MCLEAN: Thanks for talking to us, Vic.

And, John, just quickly some numbers from FEMA as well that they're also getting in. $57 million has been handed out in assistance already. They expect that number will grow exponentially in the coming days and weeks.

BERMAN: You know, it is interesting, you know, so many people have left but officials are warning them not to go home too soon.

Scott McLean, thank you very much.

And as Scott points out, when people do get home, they are finding something, well, it's just so difficult to see, the destruction from Harvey.

Our Nick Valencia has some of the stories of people going home.


MARY MARTINEZ, HOME DAMAGED BY HARVEY: OK. All right. This is the living room.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the first time in nearly a week that Mary Martinez can see hope. Last Friday, she was among the countless Texans displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

VALENCIA (on camera): What really was affected?

MARTINEZ: These two bedrooms. Here's a bedroom here where the ceiling came down.

VALENCIA: Oh, my god. Was anyone home at the time?


VALENCIA (voice-over): Mary and her family fled to her daughter's work to seek shelter ahead of the hurricane.

MARTINEZ: It was scary.

VALENCIA: They barely got out.

MARTINEZ: We were listening to the sounds outside. You could hear the rain falling and the wind. Trees were just swaying.

VALENCIA (on camera): What did it sound like?

MARTINEZ: It sounded -- it didn't sound good.

VALENCIA (voice-over): While her block in Victoria, Texas, was mostly spared, her house took a direct hit.

MARTINEZ: It was like -- just a shock. It -- you're speechless. I did not think it was going to be this bad.

VALENCIA: Leaning on her faith, she says she reached out to the Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse for help. Forty-eight hours later, a dozen volunteers were in her home to clean up. Dora Naviez (ph) was one of them.

VALENCIA (on camera): What makes you help out perfect strangers, Dora?


BERMAN: All right, we're breaking out of Nick's piece right now because we're getting a press conference right now from the Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez about the incident at the chemical plant outside Houston. Let's listen.

SHERIFF ED GONZALEZ, HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS: Coordinate an evacuation of all residents within a one and a half mile radius. That fire happened around midnight. Our deputies encountered smoke and complained of respiratory irritation. One was taken to a nearby hospital by ambulance and 14 drove themselves to the hospital to be evaluated. At last check, 13 of the 15 deputies had been released by the hospital and the other two were still being checked out.

Arkema Company officials and the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office have told us that exposure to smoke from these organic peroxides is similar to standing over a burning camp fire. Based on this information, we believe the smoke is a non-toxic irritant.

The Fire Marshal's Office plan from the beginning was to allow this fire to burn itself out. Firefighters are taking a defensive posture to prevent it from spreading.

Next, we're going to hear from Assistant Chief Royall from the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office. And then after we complete, officials from Arkema will be providing their statement here as well.


My name is Bob Royall. R-o-y-a-l-l. I'm the assistant chief of emergency operations for the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office. The Harris County Hazmat Team is part of my command.

A statement that I'd like to share with you is that earlier this week, at approximately 2:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, we -- the county EOC (ph), which was in full operation at level one, received a call from a water rescue at the Arkema plant. The Crosby Fire Department initiated that rescue.

The next morning, or later that morning, somewhere after daylight, and I remember it to be somewhere around 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., the members down -- that were working down at the EOC (ph) had a conference call with Arkema corporate officers and they asked for a complete evacuation of the plant.

Shortly after that, an hour or so later, Department of Homeland Security infrastructure protection contacted myself and Chief Reed (ph) with the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office and others and we had an extensive conference call and talked about what was going on out at Arkema.

Since that time, we developed a plan with the Crosby Fire Department, who is the incident commander on this incident. And we decided that we would invoke a safety zone around the plant, which has been done. We established that isolation perimeter at 1.5 mile radius.

After we established that evacuation zone, the Crosby Fire Department, local law enforcement and other agencies that are working to flooding event here in Harris County went door to door and evacuated all those that were close to the plant that would leave.

[09:40:19] Since that time, we have been in a defensive posture holding a perimeter around the facility to make sure that our citizens are safe and that our environment is protected to the best we can.

This morning, as expected, for all of the research that was done by myself and others, we found out that we had one of the box fans that there was a chemical decomposition, chemical reaction, that resulted in a fire at that location. There were a number of small containers that are inside the box fan that did rupture and we had -- heard some popping noise coming from that area, then gray smoke and then followed by a fire.

It is my understanding that three of the -- this is one of three of the containers that we had -- they had lost refrigeration on. And so we can expect similar type of decomposition in those other trailers, maybe even all nine of them, before it's over with.

So we -- so far what has happened is exactly what we expected was going to happen. We're still in a defensive posture. We're holding our perimeter. Our law enforcement partners are holding that perimeter.

And at this time, sheriff, if you want to take any questions.

GONZALEZ: Yes. Real quick, I'm going to just say it in Spanish, our part of it.


BERMAN: All right, you've been listening to this news conference in Crosby, Texas. This is about the Arkema chemical plant. You're looking at some live pictures of that plant right now where there are fires ablaze. Now, this fire was set off overnight, a sort of chemical reaction that went off overnight.

Now, the officials you're listening to right now, they insist it wasn't an explosion. Other folks did say there was a blast. In any case, there are clearly fires burning from these chemicals, organic peroxide it is called. Officials from the county and from that plant, the Arkema company, say that the fumes are no more dangerous than breathing in a camp fire.

Nevertheless, some 15 sheriff's deputies, first responders, ended up in the hospital after they responded to the scene. And, nevertheless, the FEMA director, the administrator, Brock Long, a couple of hours ago called the plume from this plant "incredibly dangerous." Now, it is possible that Brock Long did not have all the information that these local officials now have. It was two hours ago. But a little bit of conflicting information about the threat from these fires you are still seeing at this plant.

And one thing the officials speaking right now are making clear is that they expect they very well could be more fires from this plant in the coming hours.

I think they're about to take questions. Let's listen.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) explode. (INAUDIBLE). Are you guys on the same page?

GONZALEZ: I'll let the fire marshal speak to that and then Arkema, obviously, will be speaking and they can speak to their (INAUDIBLE).

ROYALL: Sir, to answer your question, we're on the same page. It's a matter of terminology. I call it a chemical reaction in an overpressure of the container. You'll have to ask Arkema about their explanation as far as explosions go. That's not my business. My business is protecting the citizens and our environment.

QUESTION: But speaking of that, that makes it sound like you guys are not coordinating and I have residents ask me this morning whether you guys are talking to each other and why -- why the difference?

ROYALL: Sir, we are --

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) know what the danger is.

ROYALL: Sir, we are coordinating. We've had conference calls two times a day since this started. And we've had our law enforcement partners in there, us in there, and our industrial liaison from Harris County. We have been cooperating.

You'll have to ask those specific questions about Arkema terminology and statement to them. I'm just telling you what we are doing and what we are involved in, in our approach.

QUESTION: Hey, chief, so, obviously, being in the business that you are, I mean there are big explosions in life and there are small explosions. If we go back to chemistry class, you can have one right in front of you on the table, right? So to watch you sort of parse your words this morning sort of set off -- no pun intended -- people in the area who are like, what is this guy doing, right? So it's an explosion but I don't understand why you guys were sort of so picky with words. Was it a small explosion. I mean when you look at the aerial, do you see the fire that's burning or the damage that's been done, it's clear that it's more than just a reaction.

[09:45:07] ROYALL: You must not have heard me say that containers ruptured, OK.

QUESTION: Correct, ruptured.

ROYALL: A small pop or a sound of a popping sound. QUESTION: Right.

ROYALL: What I don't want -- I don't want the public to think that these are massive explosions.


ROYALL: We're trying to make sure that our citizens are comfortable in what's going on and that they know the truth. And so with that these are small container ruptures that may have a sound -- excuse me -- may have a sound of a pop or something of that nature. This is not a massive explosion.

QUESTION: Right, a small -- a small explosion? I mean --

ROYALL: That's what you're going to call it. I'm going to call it a container rupture, OK.

QUESTION: How much isobutalaine (ph) and sulferdioxide (ph) (INAUDIBLE)?

ROYALL: Pardon me?

QUESTION: How much isobutalaine (ph) and sulferdioxide (ph) --

ROYALL: You will need to ask the company that question.


QUESTION: When can residents return to their homes?

ROYALL: When it's safe. Once we determine as public safety officials it's safe for them to return, we will make sure that that message is conveyed to our citizens.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) size of the fire.

ROYALL: Size of the fire was a part of an 18-wheeler box van truck. Part of it.


ROYALL: We had an overfly earlier this morning. We have not been back over it yet. So, I don't have an update as far as that.

QUESTION: So just one -- part of one truck? Part of one truck?

ROYALL: A portion of one truck so far, yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE), speaking (INAUDIBLE) earlier this morning, he described two railroad cars. What's the difference here?

ROYALL: A railroad car -- depending on the size of trucks, a railroad car holds a lot more than a truck. And I'll just kind of give you an inference. If you will, a tank car is equivalent to, depending on the size of the tank trucks, 10 or 11 or 12 tank trucks. So that kind of gives you -- depending on the size of the tank truck. The these are not railcars.


ROYALL: These are not railcars. These are not tank cars. There are some that are on the railroad that are two miles away that have nothing to do with this. They -- they're on the siding that belonged to a different facility.

QUESTION: Do you expect you'll be able to get in there, chief, at some point? Like, where -- how high is the water right now and do you think there may be an opportunity to get in there and sort of do some work to contain future ruptures?

ROYALL: Right now the water's still up in the plant. We do not know exactly how deep because we have this evacuation perimeter around it. That will be a determination by the plant, by Arkema, if they're going to go in and try to do anything. That's not my decision.

QUESTION: What do you know about the chemicals that have been released, that potentially could be released? What are the potential health effects for your residents?

ROYALL: What I know from doing research is these things are going to catch on fire. They're going to burn with intensity. Most of the material is going to be consumed by a very hot fire. OK. From what I have researched and understand, is that the byproducts of that is going to be a black smoke with carbon particles in it. OK.

As far as a liquid flowing from there --

QUESTION: Can you put that into simpler terms? What does it mean for people's health?

ROYALL: What does it mean for people's health? You don't want to stand in smoke, do you? So it's -- the sheriff says it's like a camp fire. It's hydrocarbons burning. There's a lot of things made up of hydrocarbons. So --

QUESTION: So the things burning there are no more dangerous than a camp fire?

ROYALL: Yes, I did not say that, sir.

QUESTION: But people's health. I mean tell us what the eventual effect --

ROYALL: It -- right. Right. You don't want to inhale smoke, OK. I mean that's plain and simple. So it's smoke with carbon particles in it.

QUESTION: That's it?

ROYALL: That's -- that's what I have been -- that's what I have researched and that's what I have discussed with --

QUESTION: But what about the plant? I mean isn't the plant that's producing these chemicals, don't they have any information about what the health effects are? I mean if you're doing research on your own, but there are experts there that are producing this, why aren't they providing you the research and more information?

GONZALEZ: Ma'am, we just said they were going to speak right after --

ROYALL: Ma'am, they are going to speak next. They have provided us documentation about the materials. And I'm looking at it from a, you know, a public safety standpoint.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, one more question for Chief Royall and then I need to take him.

QUESTION: OK. From the public safety standpoint, why was the evacuation -- why was people sent home? OK.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) what do you have to say to that (INAUDIBLE).

ROYALL: Ma'am, I haven't talked to the congressman, and so I'm not going to comment on that because I haven't talked to him, so I don't know whether, you know --


ROYALL: I am comfortable with a mile and a half exclusion zone because that is actually longer than whenever us in the -- us, I'm talking me, and the law enforcement officials set down. It could have been a mile would have been adequate. But the streets the way they're laid out, it gave us an opportunity to make it a mile and a half, which give us extra safety factor.

[09:50:00] QUESTION: Sheriff, how close were your deputies?

GONZALEZ: Do we know how close, Russ?

About a mile and a half.

Now we'll have the officials from Arkema step up and offer further explanations.

RICH RENNARD, ARKEMA EXECUTIVE: My name's Rich Rennard, it's r-e-n-n- a-r-d, from Arkema. I'm the president --

QUESTION: Can you repeat that, sir?

RENNARD: Sure, it's Richard Rennard, r-e-n-n-a-r-d. And I'm the president of our acrylic monomers business.

QUESTION: What is that?

QUESTION: I can't hear you.

QUESTION: Can you speak up, please.

RENNARD: Sure. I'm the president of our acrylic monomers business.


RENNARD: Acrylic monomers. It's another one of our business divisions in the company.

As you might imagine, with all of the unprecedented flooding that we've had, it's been difficult to get people from around the country organized here to deal with the issue that we're facing with. So it's kind of all hands on deck and I'm here to try to help share key messages with the community and make sure that everybody understands what's going on with our site.

First, let me just say, in terms of the question that was raised about our coordination and cooperation with the local authorities. The emergency response teams and the first responders have been doing heroic work to try to help us protect the local community and the residents. We want to thank, certainly, the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office, the Harris County Sheriff's Office, FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security. They have all been doing outstanding work and we've been cooperating intimately with them to deal with the incident.

Next, I'd like to just point out that, obviously, with Hurricane Harvey making landfall, this was an unprecedented storm. Our team and the sites took extraordinary efforts to try to protect the integrity of the products that are involved, and I'll get into that in a little bit more detail here shortly.

The materials that are involved or what we produce there are liquid organic peroxides. This is a chemical facility. We do produce obviously organic peroxides. And to do that we have other chemicals stored on the sight that we use as raw materials for the production of the finished product we make.

The issue is not those materials. Those products are safety stored and there's no issue with those as long as a broader area of the sight's not involved.

And what is the concern is, is the cold temperature products, the cold temperature organic peroxides. These materials have to be maintained cold. If they start to warm up, they become unstable and they will decompose.

When they decompose, they generate heat. And when they generate heat, there's the possibility of a fire and possible explosion. We do have nine containers. These materials are stored in ice -- in these box containers, like you'd see on over the road storage containers. One of those containers has been involved and the product in that container has started to degrade. That happened early this morning.

We fully expect that the other eight containers will do the same thing. Water is still in our facility and preventing us from accessing the facility. And we believe at this point that the safest thing to do is to allow the other eight containers product in those to degrade and burn.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)? RENNARD: Excuse me. Just a few more remarks, and then I'll be happy to take some questions.

Certainly, on behalf of all of the employees at Arkema, I want to apologize for the impact that this is having on the local community. We certainly appreciate all of the work that the responders are doing to help protect the safety of those in the area. And that's our primary objective. And we're going to continue to do that.

With that, I'm happy to take some questions.

QUESTION: Can you tell us when and where --

RENNARD: Maybe one at a time, sorry.

QUESTION: Was there (INAUDIBLE) explosion --


RENNARD: So our understanding is that the material is stored in these containers and that there are pressure relief valves on these containers. When pressure builds up in the container to a certain point that exceeds the pressure of that valve, that valve releases and it makes a popping sound. Our understanding is that we've -- that's the sound that we've heard. Certainly these things can burn very quickly and very violently. And it would not be unusual for them to explode.

But what we believe we've heard -- and we're -- understand, we're a mile and a half away from the facility. So we're not -- we don't have anybody on the site that's watching what's happening. We believe that it's just -- hasn't been a massive explosion. It's just been these vapor relief valves that have been -- that popped.

[09:55:04] QUESTION: Why did -- why did people hear an explosion?


QUESTION: Are you saying (INAUDIBLE) something more than just a pressure valve popping in the fire?

RENNARD: We certainly anticipate that it's hard to predict if there will be a -- an explosion. But certainly these things burn when they degrade. And there is a possibility that an explosion could happen. That's --

QUESTION: Why did you -- why did Arkema not (INAUDIBLE) the chemicals. Why did you rely on cooling as your way to mitigate this -- this potential problem?

RENNARD: Well, the materials are required to be kept cold. As far as I know, I don't know that there's any chemical way of keeping that from happening once --

QUESTION: That -- I talked to two experts yesterday. Dr. (INAUDIBLE) over at Texas A&M, and somebody over at UH both said it's standard operating procedure at facilities like this to have a compound to neutralize the chemical. Why did Arkema not have such a thing?

RENNARD: No, I'm not -- I can't comment on that. I don't know the chemistry that you're describing. So --

QUESTION: You said your plant has taken (INAUDIBLE).

RENNARD: Yes, we did.

QUESTION: Can you describe those extraordinary measures for me. (INAUDIBLE).


QUESTION: I just want to make sure (INAUDIBLE).

RENNARD: Understand. So, on Friday we, before the storm hit, we started taking measures to shut down our plant. The plant was safely shut down. And we put in place multiple layers of protection to try to provide refrigeration for the materials that need to be kept in storage under --

QUESTION: Can you describe those a little bit?

RENNARD: Absolutely.

So our -- obviously our primary layer of protection was our power supply. When the storm hit, we lost our primary power. We brought in emergency generators to provide back-up power to provide refrigeration to those products. As the floodwaters rose, those generators were compromised and we lost the use of those generators because of the floods waters.

We actually had a third system in place, which was liquid nitrogen. We have a liquid nitrogen system on sight to provide refrigeration to these storage containers. Because of the flooding, floodwaters, some of the equipment necessary to operate that liquid nitrogen system was also compromised.

And then our fourth layer of protection was these refrigerated storage containers. So we brought these refrigerated storage containers, moved all of the product into these containers, which is where they are now.

QUESTION: Richard, are you anticipating more explosions or popping or whatever you want to call it?

RENNARD: Yes, we're anticipating that the remaining eight containers that have not yet started to have product degrade in them, for that to start to happen.

QUESTION: How far away --

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) three are not cooling right now?

RENNARD: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: At least three are not cooling out of the eight? Is that accurate?

RENNARD: Now my understanding, gentlemen, is we have -- that we've lost refrigeration capability in eight of the nine.

QUESTION: Eight of the nine?


QUESTION: How far away are the tanks (INAUDIBLE) from where that organic peroxide you're worried about?

RENNARD: I'm not sure about the exact distance. But the containers themselves are in a remote area of the plant. So we don't anticipate any other buildings or equipment on the site to be effected.

QUESTION: Can we get a layout of the plant from Arkema so we can have an idea of how far away it is as, you know, the public, so they can know that --

RENNARD: Yes, I think that --

QUESTION: Or are we relying entirely on you just saying that it's far away?

RENNARD: No, I think that's something that we can do.

QUESTION: What are the potential health impacts --

QUESTION: Mr. Rennard --

RENNARD: Hold on.

QUESTION: Excuse me.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) was there not enough time to get these trucks out of there?

RENNARD: No. We felt that the best place to keep this material based on the nature of the product was in the plant. We have experts and people that know this chemistry, know how to handle the products. We have the equipment there that we felt like, based on what we would have anticipated happening on the -- in the storm. We certainly didn't want to bring these containers out on to the roads with hundreds of thousands of people being evacuated and having a trailer stuck on a highway somewhere with numerous people around. So we felt like the safest place to keep the containers and to protect the citizens in the area was to keep the product on our site.



QUESTION: Let me ask you this. Are you willing to release a list of all the chemicals (INAUDIBLE)?

RENNARD: Yes, we can share the information about what other chemicals that we have on site.

QUESTION: Can you talk about --

RENNARD: Excuse me. I'm sorry.

QUESTION: The potential health impact. What are the -- what are the potential --


QUESTION: What are the health risks?

RENNARD: So, what we have is a fire.

QUESTION: Talk to the microphones.

QUESTION: You can -- yes.

QUESTION: Thank you.

RENNARD: OK. I'm trying to speak to the individual that's asking the question, sorry.

QUESTION: Nobody can hear you though.



[09:59:42] RENNARD: So the question was, what is the health risk? What we have going on, it's not a chemical release that's happening. And I want to be clear about that. This isn't a chemical release. What we have is a fire. And when you have a fire that -- where hydrocarbons, these chemicals are burning, sometimes you have incomplete combustion and you have smoke. And any smoke is going to be an irritant to your eyes or your lungs or potentially your skin.