Residents Go to Court Over Months-Long Texas Plant Fire

BEAUMONT, Texas (CN) – Thirty-one people say they suffered breathing problems and insomnia for more than two months as a smoldering fire at a wood-pellet shipping plant enveloped their southeast Texas neighborhood in smoke.

Lead plaintiff Hilton Kelley filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Jefferson County District Court seeking more than $1 million in damages from German Pellets Texas LLC, Texas Pellets Inc. and Cotton Commercial USA. He is represented by Charles Irvine with Irvine & Conner in Houston.

Sister companies Texas Pellets and German Pellets Texas own a solid-waste disposal and wood-pellet manufacturing plant in Woodville, Texas, and a five-silo pellet storage and shipping plant in Port Arthur, Texas.

Their parent company is German Pellets GmbH, a German multinational that sells most of the wood pellets they produce to clients in Europe.

“From Port Arthur, German Pellets sends more than 578,000 tons of wood pellets to European customers each year,” the complaint states. German Pellets owns another wood-pellets plant in Urania, La.

Wood pellets are produced from bark, wood chips and sawdust left over from logging and plywood plant operations. Power-plant owners burn them to generate electricity, and they are used as a heating and cooking fuel by homeowners and businesses.

Kelley and his co-plaintiffs live in the West Side neighborhood in Port Arthur near German Pellets’ plant. Woodville is 80 miles north of Port Arthur.

On the Gulf of Mexico near the Louisiana-Texas border, Port Arthur is home to the largest oil refinery in the United States and its climate is one of the most humid of any U.S. city. Hurricane Harvey dumped 26 inches of rain within 24 hours on the city in late August. It is in the early recovery stages from the storm that flooded 20,000 homes with 6 feet of water.

Kelley says in the lawsuit that although German Pellets’ finished building the Port Arthur shipping plant in 2013 and the Louisiana plant became fully operational in 2016, the plants have already amassed a checkered workplace safety history, marked by two workers’ deaths and numerous citations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“In late 2016, OSHA cited German Pellets’ Louisiana facility for improper safety procedures that resulted in a worker’s death. … On October 20, 2017, a worker died at German Pellets’ Port Arthur facility,” the complaint states.

Citing the Port Arthur Fire Department, local media reported that Jesus Cuevas died on Oct. 20 when wood chips fell on the tractor he was using to move them.

OSHA also fined German Pellets $267,000 in August for providing inadequate dust-filtration masks for its Port Arthur plant workers and other safety issues at the plant, according to the complaint.

Kelley says that starting in 2014, German Pellets has been plagued by a series of explosions and fires at its Texas plants sparked by heavy dust that’s a byproduct of wood-pellet production.

“In April 2014, an explosion at the Woodville plant caused a fire to break out and spread across two of the plant’s silos,” the complaint states. “The Tyler County Emergency Manager publicly stated at the time that the fire was difficult to extinguish because it was a smoldering fire beneath the surface of the wood pellets pile.”

In February, Kelley says, a fire started in a silo at the Port Arthur plant. According to the complaint, “The fire started at a conveyor belt that was loading wooden pellets
onto a ship.”

But Kelley says the depth of German Pellets’ negligence became evident this spring, as a fire that started in a silo at the Port Arthur plant in April smoldered for weeks and encased his neighborhood in heavy smoke before the silo collapsed in early June.

“For more than two months, plaintiffs could see, smell and breathe in the smoldering air from the fire,” the lawsuit states. “The smoke filled plaintiffs’ homes. The smoke saturated not only the homes, but also their cars, clothing and other personal belongings. Plaintiffs could not sleep due to smoke and its smell entering their bedrooms.”

Kelley says the smoke caused breathing problems for his neighborhood’s residents – including asthma, sinus infections, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – and some were hospitalized.

As the fire smoldered, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental watchdog, advised children, the elderly and people with heart and lung problems to stay inside with the windows and doors shut as much as possible, according to the lawsuit.

Kelley claims German Pellets hired co-defendant Cotton Commercial USA to put out the fire in April, but Cotton “prioritized protecting German Pellets’ property over preventing harm to adjacent neighborhoods,” so the fire burned much longer than it should have.

He says the plant has been shut down since July, when Port Arthur sued German Pellets and obtained an injunction that month, giving the company until Oct. 12 to implement safety measures to prevent more fires.

A judge extended the shut-down order on Oct. 12 because German Pellets had not made the necessary safety improvements, according to the complaint.

Kelley and his co-plaintiffs seek more than $1 million damages on claims of nuisance, trespass, gross negligence and negligence.

German Pellets did not immediately respond Friday morning to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

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