New details about 'orange cloud' over Pasadena

February 17, 2010 3:56:26 PM PST
There are surprising new details about the chemical release that sent an orange cloud pouring out of a Pasadena plant Tuesday. In the initial minutes, there was widespread confusion if the chemical was really a threat. It turns out that even the people in charge didn't have the answer. On Tuesday, we could not get a straight answer - was an orange cloud floating over Pasadena a danger to the people?

The city of Pasadena Wednesday says it was misled by the company that was leaking the dangerous chemical and they question whether the release was intentional. We talked to the Pasadena fire chief who says the company is to blame for all the confusion.

In the middle of an emergency, with thousands of people at risk nearby, no one was answering the phone here at air chemicals. And that's just the beginning of the problem.

Today neighbors and the city say the emergency was handled very poorly. Alex Pena lives across the highway from Air Products and Chemicals. He was driving to work under the cloud and he could tell right away it was something to stay away from.

"I told my family to stay inside," said Pena.

But it took the company and the city of Pasadena 20 minutes to come to the same conclusion. When Pasadena's fire chief blames that on the company and feels misled.

Pasadena told us they found about the suspicious orange cloud from 911 callers. The company never called 911 and when the city called Air Products, the company didn't answer and didn't call back for at least 20 minutes.

"During the first 20 minutes of the emergency I was here on site," said Jacques Joseph, Air Products and Chemicals Plant Manager.

The plant manager said he was here but couldn't explain why he didn't answer the phone to help protect the thousands of people who live nearby.

Ted Oberg asked, "Where were you the first 20 minutes of this emergency?"

Joseph said, "I've answered that question."

Ted Oberg replied, "You keep telling me you've answered that. You haven't.

That was the first problem that delayed the shelter in place, but the problems continued. The company apparently at first misidentified the chemical as something safe when it definitely wasn't and wouldn't admit there was a Level 3 Emergency requiring a shelter in place.

"It was a little difficult for us to coerce the facility to admit it was a Level 3 when it was obvious to us that it was," said Pasadena Fire Chief Lanny Armstrong.

What it meant to neighbors was unnecessary delay when delay could've been deadly.

We saw the cloud at 5:19pm Tuesday afternoon, plenty of viewers called us and told us about it.

By 5:25pm, Pasadena police had closed 225.

At 5:31pm, the Pasadena police told us on the phone they ordered a shelter in place. It was what they called a "very serious leak."

Here's where the confusion starts.

Four minutes after that though, at 5:35pm, the city sent an email blast to all citizens saying it was "a localized discharge, no danger to the public."

It wasn't until 16 minutes after that at 5:51pm that Pasadena sent a second email blast finally reversing its position and ordering the shelter in place.

The fire chief says it needs to be handled better.

"Can we improve? Absolutely," said Chief Armstrong.

Neighbors say it has to improve. When we asked Alex Pena if the city got it right, he simply replied, "No."

The company says it followed protocols and will call 911 next time. The company could face fines from TCEQ or OSHA or the EPA.


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