Truck driver files lawsuit over Channelview chemical fire

His attorneys say he was there to make a drop-off and had to be hospitalized for injuries to his lungs, neck, shoulders, and back.

Video Transcript

TED OBERG: This facility, this company, has a couple of things that we know about it. One, they have their corporate offices out on the west side on the Katy Freeway. And then they have, where this fire is here, sort of in the Ship Channel area. And from what we can tell, it appears that this is somewhat of a transient facility. They don't make a whole lot of stuff here. What they do is, accept chemicals and, it's likely, ship chemicals.

The problem with that, when you see a fire like this one burning, as you can see from SkyEye right now, is that we don't necessarily know what the mix of chemicals is in this fire, Art and Ilona. And the bigger problem is that firefighters may not know the mix of those chemicals because there is no requirement for real-time reporting of what companies like this have on site. They do have to report their inventory every year. But a facility like this one that has tanks that hold some material, and then tanks that ship to offshore facilities, is that they don't necessarily have to tell people every day what they have on site. It would be awfully cumbersome, but in moments like this, would be awfully helpful.

And I'm not certain how many Houstonians I speak for, when I can say it is way too often that we see those giant plumes of black smoke rising up in the air over our skyline. To say that, hey, something needs to change here, because take a look at this as we move over towards the real-time reporting. This is what we've always been told, is that governments want to get towards real-time reporting to tell people who live near these plants-- or maybe live miles away, but see the black smoke over their homes, or their children's schools-- is that we want to be able to tell them that their air is safe or not safe.

At this point, we don't know of any evacuation orders, but look at this. This is TCEQ, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's real-time reporting. Take a look. The last set of data-- and this would be good data, if it came in real time-- but the last set of data was released at 2 o'clock. Check your watch. That's nearly 3 1/2 hours ago and, for this purpose, it's useless.

As we look over at what Harris County is doing, they have set up, with lots of money, their own pollution monitoring in real time that can tell us that a fire is burning there in Channelview, but they don't have any monitoring up yet either. And guys, that is a real, real problem for people who live, work, or commute through the area where this fire is burning because we simply cannot verify on their own what's burning. They have to take the word for it of people who are on scene there, or maybe not even on scene, that it's safe. And that's a real problem when we see smoke as volatile as this, not knowing, necessarily, what's in it. And this thing has been going now for at least an hour.

ART RASCON: Well, and especially dangerous for right here in Houston, the oil capital, petroleum capital, of the entire world, where more companies directly and indirectly are right here. And you have companies like this where, yes, this is chemical-based, petroleum-based, and they have a long list of chemicals, but you never know, as you say, of what they're burning or what's happening that day.

TED OBERG: Not only do we not know, there doesn't appear to be a rush to add that to the list of requirements. One note that we should say about the company is that, ironically, they do own a disaster management response firm. Ironically enough, a relatively well-known one, one that we've seen at a lot of these industrial fires. So among the companies that may be well suited to respond to something like this, you'd have to imagine that this company would be.

ILONA CARSON: Well, and it is just really alarming when you think about-- you mentioned it-- we worry because this is now in the air that we're breathing. But, again, you mentioned, think about those firefighters, think about those hazmat crews that are trying to figure out whether they should even be putting water on these different chemicals and trying to figure out how to fight it. And they're right there on the front lines. They've got to get very close to these flames and very close to this smoke. And obviously, they have their equipment on but that would be no guarantee, given what could be burning in some of those flames.

TED OBERG: Yeah, it's a good point, Ilona, I think, to point out for those first responders, they know which direction the wind is blowing. And if you notice, they are all upwind. None of those firefighters are in that smoke plume. That's not by accident. That's by design. They know exactly where to be. The problem is the smoke plume is headed north and northeast into areas that at least neighboring this facility are industrial spots, but not too far away are some residential areas. Certainly our crews can't get to them because they're too close. But you have to imagine there are some people there right now.

ART RASCON: Yeah. And it's safe to say that when you have a fire like this, with that black smoke, petroleum-based chemical, that it's toxic in some way because it's burning like that. But we don't know what we're breathing and that's a problem.

TED OBERG: We don't. What we typically hear from industry is that a couple of things-- elevation and dilution-- do help. And the wind, we do know you can tell from how fast the smoke plume is moving, the wind is blowing fairly fast. And it is lifting that smoke, so it's not hovering on the ground. But I'm not certain if I lived close by, that's enough comfort.

ART RASCON: Right. It's going to bring you much comfort.

ILONA CARSON: Yeah. Certainly we would like more information in a situation like this to make those decisions ourselves. And Ted, we really appreciate you looking into the company and looking into the situation as it stands out there right now.