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CNN NEWSROOM

ARKEMA Chemical Plant; Evacuation; Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 31, 2017 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[10:00:00]

RICH RENNARD, ARKEMA EXECUTIVE, TEXAS: You have smoke, and any smoke is going to be an irritant to your eyes, your lungs or potentially your skin. So, if you're exposed to that, we're encouraging anyone that may be exposed to smoke coming from this fire, to contact their doctor or to seek medical advice.

QUESTION: A campfire, is that correct?

RENNARD: I heard the sheriff say that, and the Chief say that. I don't want to necessarily compare the intensity of the smoke of this ...

QUESTION: I heard the sheriff say this is no more dangerous than a barbeque.

RENNARD: I heard the comment but again I don't want to make any kind of comparisons on the kind of smoke that's coming from our fire.

QUESTION: So, you can't be sure that it's just a campfire smoke, you can't be sure that it's ...

RENNARD: No, but I can tell you the toxicity from the smoke will certainly cause an irritation to you eyes, and irritation to your lungs, just like any smoke. We encourage not to -- to avoid getting exposed to that. So the plant continues to be shut down. We have on of these nine containers that have experienced degradation with the materials inside of the container. The water levels in the plant are stating to recede slightly. And that's the current state of the plant.

QUESTION: People want to know how in danger they are.

RENNARD: So, with the recommendation from local authorities we've established this one in a half mile evacuation zone. We believe along with the local authorities that we've moved everyone out of harms way, and that no one is in danger based on the fire that we expect.

We are not intending on going into the site, based on the current state as we understand on the product of these containers. We do not think that that's a safe thing to do.

Well certainly we won't until all of the flood waters have reseeded. That's the first step. And certainly the product that we believe is potentially decomposing. We're not going to put anyone in harms way to restore refrigeration, because we don't know the state of the product in the containers.

We will likely wait -- we're working on that strategy now, but my expectations are that will the plan will be.

QUESTIONS: How long to you think it will take for the other containers to burn?

RENNARD: If the products haven't degraded yes, as long as the products are kept cold, yes, the integrity of the product can be kept.

QUESTION: Do they just degrade on their own?

RENNARD: Yes, that's correct. If they exceed a certain temperature, they begin to decompose, and that decomposition process generates the heat, and ultimately produces the fire.

QUESTION: Can you talk about how this occurred, and what is sort of a worse case scenario, if there is an explosion like we talked about earlier, you know how big are we talking about? What's the worse case scenario?

RENNARD: Yes, that I just -- with the speculation of how big a fire can be, what we do know with the first container, is that the sheriffs department did some video of what was happening. The smoke flume we understand was 30 to 40 feet in the air. And they could see visible flame coming out of the container. Is that the extent of what could happen? We just can't predict so.

I don't know the temperature at which is burns, you guys do you know? We can try to get that information for you.

(Inaudible)

RENNARD: How often do we test the nitrogen back up system? Yes, I'm not sure how frequently we are testing that equipment. But it is certainly maintained. It's one of our layers of protection to provide refrigeration to cold products that we need to store. The beginning of your question was ...

(inaudible)

RENNARD: Certainly we didn't anticipate having 6ft of water in our plant. This is -- yes and this is really the issue that has led to the incident that we're experiencing now. Pardon?

QUESTION: Can you answer why people were sent home from the rescue center for those people living within the 1.5 miles, and then gone and got again, and evacuated the second time?

RENNARD: Yes, I can't comment on that. I don't know the details around that. Obviously the fire marshals office imposed the 1.5 mile evacuation zone, we certainly respected that and we certainly encourage all of the residents who live inside that zone, to respect that zone. If they can still evacuate safely, we could encourage them to do that. [10:05:00]

QUESTION: What is the possibility that one of the explosions could rupture other chemicals on site?

RENNARD: As I said, the containers are remote enough, we don't anticipate damage to other property on site.

QUESTION: If you said the chemicals could burn, is there any potential for them not to burn and release into floodwaters and if so, do damage?

RENNARD: No. We anticipate the products will decompose once they warm up and burn.

QUESTION: Should you have had additional layers of power back up?

RENNARD: We had generators, back-up generators, back up, back up generators. I'm not sure what more we could have done to provide additional layers of security.

QUESTION: Did the flood catch you off guard?

RENNARD: Again, no one on site, how likely can you measure the situation?

(inaudible)

RENNARD: Inside these containers there is remote teletri we can monitor. That tell try is compromised based on the flooding that took place. It's not 100 percent certain what the conditions are in the containers. We are not going to put anybody in harm's way because we don't know.

QUESTION: You don't have any idea how long?

RENNARD: We do not. We anticipated certainly we had the first incident. We don't know the answer to that.

QUESTION: Can you say the fumes are not toxic?

RENNARD: The toxicity of the fumes? You mean the smoke?

QUESTION: Yes.

RENNARD: I don't know the composition of the smoke.

QUESTION: You can't say neither the smoke -- hold on please answer the question?

RENNARD: The toxicity --

QUESTION: You are not able to say any of this is non-toxic?

RENNARD: Organic peroxides are, as the Sheriff said, they are chemical materials used to initiate other chemical production for the purpose of making plastics. Toxicity is a --

QUESTION: You are not going to say they are non-toxic correct? Are you going to say they are or not? Yes, or no? I think it's a pretty important question.

RENNARD: The smoke is noxious. It's relative. If you breathe in the smoke, it's going to irritate your lungs. It's like, an irritant to your lungs, it will. Because irritation in your lungs.

QUESTION: It's not going to kill you?

RENNARD: No. We don't believe that to be the case.

QUESTION: Is there anything you want to say to reassure this community? It sounds like there's a lot you don't know in terms of toxicity, timing. What do you want them to know?

RENNARD: We want them to understand respect the 1.5 mile radius. We think that is providing a safe area for the residents to stay. We anticipate all this product is going to degrade. We don't know exactly how long that's going to take.

Certainly, the warm temperatures that we have is likely going to speed up that process. But, we can't define, specifically how long it's going to take for the material to degrade. Whether it's today, tomorrow, we just don't know. It's impossible to predict that, we would be speculating.

QUESTION: People are worried.

RENNARD: Of course. We understand that. That's why we want people to make sure they respect the 1.5 mile radius. We don't want people returning back to their homes thinking it's over. It's not over. This is a very serious issue. We know that.

QUESTION: After this is done, should people around here be comfortable having ARKEMA as a neighbor?

RENNARD: I think so. We have been responding to this the best we can. We have set up a hot line for people who have experienced issues related to this. And a claims line as well. So, we encourage people, if they have been -- if they have injuries or damage to their property as a result o our issue to call the hotline.

[10:10:00]

QUESTION: Can you share that number?

RENNARD: I don't know the number itself. It's -- it is, I believe, on our public, on our website. If not, it will be.

QUESTION: How was the public notified about the issue and that they need to evacuate?

RENNARD: So, the evacuation was set up by the Harris County fire marshals office. They were the ones that made the public announcement about the evacuation. That's how that information was communicated.

UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Thank you very much folks. We have to keep on schedule.

RENNARD: My name is Richard Rennard. My title is the President of the Monomers.

QUESTION: Can you spell it?

RENNARD: Acrylic. Monomer is monomer.

QUESTION: You work for ARKEMA?

RENNARD: Yes. Thank you.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You have been listening to an important news conference from across by, Texas officials from the ARKEMA chemical plant. This had to do with taking place of a smoke flume. This is a continuous news conference, confusing and contradictory.

Here is what we know for sure. Overnight, there was a fire there with smoke released in one of these containers housing organic peroxide. Whether or not there was an explosion seems to be in dispute. Some officials acknowledged it was a pop. Others indicated it could be counted as an explosion.

Another area of confusion, the some right now. It is a danger to people in the community? Some people, county officials there, compared it to breathing in a campfire. The president of the subsidiary of ARKEMA said it can be dangerous if you breathe it in, get it in your eyes or skin, seek medical advice if you are exposed.

Another Keierre, there was an evacuation for a 1.5 mile radius for a couple of days now and they don't want people going back there. One of nine containers had a fire or explosion, if you want to call it hat, overnight. There are eight more containers. They expect all of them to undergo similar incidents.

I want to go to Paul. He is as close as you can get right now to that ARKEMA chemical plant. He's been listening along with us. There seems to be a great deal of concern about this, Paul. Officials trying to down play it, but there are things people need to know.

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Let's try to give you perspective from evacuation. I talked to him off camera. He lived behind the plant. It was the coast guard that came through and told him and his family they need to get out.

They said there was plenty of warning and they knew it was serious and they told them to start calculating your losses. You heard that in the press conference. That means anybody who suspects they might have damage to their property, lose work, whatever the case might be.

If they attribute it to this incident at this plant, they were going to file a claim. They talked about that at length. This frustrated homeowner has horses. He was able to get two out, two remain. There's a level of frustration between the people they may not have been able to get all of their animals.

As they pointed out, it's a 1.5 mile evacuation zone around the plant area. He also said about containers, he called them chillers. As you heard time and time again, John, the idea is, these chemicals need to be cool, and they get degraded and they ignite, whether that is a full explosion remains to be seen.

Certainly, this was not on the level of that fertilizer plant explosion that you may remember during the time of the Boston marathon bombing where a huge plume of smoke and more went into the sky. They said the smoke was 30 to 40 feet high. Let's hear what the description was from the fire marshal in the area.

BOB ROYALL, ASST CHIEF, HARRIS COUNTY FIRE MARSHAL: 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 vans that there was a chemical decomposition, chemical reaction that resulted in a fire location.

There were a number of small containers inside the box van that did rupture. We heard popping noises coming from that area. Then gray smoke and followed by a fire.

[10:15:00}

VERCAMMEN: The neighbor we talked to off camera says he called in some of his neighbors stayed behind and heard popping noises. He told us ominously he thought one people were told to evacuate the area, they saw suspicious looking characters and he was fearful they may try and loot his abandoned neighborhood.

By the way, 57 employees evacuated a long time ago.

BERMAN: Paul, as close as you can get to the ARKEMA plant. Again, we have been listening to this long news conference. They have been expecting more incidents. This will be an ongoing issue. We could hear and see more fire and smoke from that plant in the coming hours.

We'll keep a close eye on it. We want to go to Drew Griffin. They are dealing with a different kind of problem. Utilities, resources as the floodwaters rise.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there's already a lineup for water, bottled water at many stores in Beaumont. Overnight, the main pumping station that goes into the water plant -- it just broke, it stopped working. The city of Beaumont, are without water, trying to deal with that emergency.

That cascades into other factors they are talking about. Do we, do we not evacuate hospitals at this point? It depends on how long it is going to take to fix that problem. The problem is, they don't know, John. The pumping station is either underwater or they can't get to it right now.

They ant even get to the point where they know what it is that is wrong. We are waiting for city officials to come out and explain the situation to us. In the meantime, Jefferson County continues to be underwater.

This was 5.5 feet of water. It's down to two feet of water right now. The water is going down. Other problems are developing like the city of Beaumont's water emergency, which is going to drag out for potentially days yet come. It never seems to end. This Harvey, we couldn't get rid of it, now we can't get rid of the aftermath.

BERMAN: Clearly, one of the more relentless storms the United States has ever seen. The floodwaters are still rising at Beaumont, but drew points out going down, but slowly, with problems emerging like the drinking water.

One place that managed to stay dry not to far from Drew is a bowling alley in Port Arthur, I believe. It became a shelter. You can see it there. My next guest has been there since 6:00 A.M Tuesday. More than 48 hours by my math. The battalion chief for the Port Arthur department joins me by phone.

Chief, this bowling alley, what's it been like inside of there?

BATTALION CHIEF, FORT ARTHUR DEPARTMENT: Actually it's really good. It's a bowling alley, so there's built in entertainment. They have a game room and of course the bowling alley. But, it wasn't built to house up to 400 people that I have there at the peak. So, we were cramped for awhile.

BERMAN: First of all, so glad you are able to laugh. Laughter is a wonderful sound to hear after everything you all have been through there. You said 400 people at the peak. How many inside now?

CHIEF: Yes, there were 400 people up to that peak.

BERMAN: Now how many are there?

CHIEF: Now, there's probably 120 to 140 right now. Several of them moved off to local shelters. Several of the churches in the area opened up shelters and they came by with their vans and they picked up 10, 15, 20, 30. Some people evacuated, tried to go back home that are on second floor apartment complexes over here that didn't get much water.

They actually, just a few of them have gone home. Some people have been picked up by relatives. So, at this point, there's about 100 to 125. The plans are, today, we are going to relocate them today to a better facility that's actually set up to be a shelter.

BERMAN: Port Arthur, after Houston was hit, the storm moved on, Port Arthur got two feet of rain, less than 24 hours. So many people forced from their homes quickly. What's the situation right now?

CHIEF: Situation right now is the water receding a little bit. We have actually sunny skies right now. It hasn't rained in several hours. We are still having boat rescues ongoing.

We are starting to get resources from other areas coming to supplement our fire rescue and also rescue resources. We have had a lot of people show up just private citizens. I think we had several agencies, that Cajun Navy, the Florida parts and wildlife that brought several boats.

We just had an overwhelming amount of people show up and support us. We haven't had any luck of boats in my area. The other side of town, the rescues are still ongoing. We had recircle boat crews to get to them. Yesterday, we had the coast guard helicopters.

They were picking some people off roofs. We had the National Guard with the big black hawks landing on the highway picking people up, and carrying them away.

BERMAN: More of that to come, no doubt. Just level with us quickly, you had a chance to play any games inside the bowling alley?

CHIEF: No. I have had to walk past the video arcade several times. It was tempting to go in there and play a few games, but I had -- every time I walked by, people grabbing me and asking me questions. So, I didn't get to experience that. I did see a few interesting things though.

BERMAN: No doubt.

CHIEF: At one point, I had several breeds of dogs, a couple breeds of cats. I had a monkey, a parrot, and a gentlemen walking around with a big iguana on his head.

[10:20:00]

BERMAN: The monkey story for another time. We are glad you are well. Thank you for you work inside that shelter. We know you have a lot of work coming up.

CHIEF: Thank you.

BERMAN: We're going to have a life report from Richmond, Texas, shortly. The crew says the water there is rising. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:25:00]

BERMAN: We have been telling you a very dynamic situation with the flooding in Texas. Water receding in some areas, but rising in others. In Richmond, Texas, several areas put under a mandatory evacuation because the water there, looking at live pictures is rising.

Polo Sandoval is there. What are you seeing?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The Army corps of engineers says the water levels are, quote, on a downgrade trend. That is certainly not the case if you drive 30 minutes west to where we are here in Fort Bend County, Texas where the river continues on the slow, but steady rise. It's not crested yet, but exceeds the record amounts we saw here about

a year and a half ago. The result, more mandatory evacuations put in place overnight. Local officials issuing warning for people to leave home as soon as it became daylight, especially those homes close to the river. I have spoke to several people here.

They are telling me some of the local officials are saying try to make your way back into these zones, back into your home, they could be fined. The reality is, if people make their way into the homes, they could lose more than a few hundred dollars. As you may imagine, officials are making sure they get the message to stay away from the water.

Yes, the floodwaters are receding in parts of Houston. Other parts of Texas, but here in Richmond, that is not the case. If anything, the water continues to rise. John?

BERMAN: Polo Sandoval in Richmond thank you very much. Let's head to Chad Myers to get a difference in the rising and falling waters. Chad?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEROLOGIST: What's ironic is I can see myself in that exact position Polo is standing in. I was there in June of last year, looking at the same homes flooded. They fixed them up and they are flooding again. It cold be another foot above where I saw it last year and it was catastrophic.

So catastrophic plus one. We are talking barker and attics. Attics is too high, water coming out the spill way. Water is going to wrong way and along the beltway and seeing flooding here. Focus on barker. That has been the focus today.

Water is coming out, but not fast enough. Water is backing up into neighborhoods built slightly below the top level of the levee. So, in a sense, you put the house that you built in the back end of the lake.

Here is what barker looks like. This is not a lake. It is dry all the time. This is a park. There's a shooting range in here, a golf course in Addicks. They treat it as a park. When it fills up, it becomes a lake. Here is what it was built like when it was built in the '50s.