More apologies from Pasadena plant

February 24, 2010 5:20:11 PM PST
We're hearing repeated apologies from officials of a Pasadena chemical plant for their lax response to a toxic chemical release, and a pledge to make things right. But is it enough? You may remember last week, a toxic, orange cloud released from a Pasadena chemical plant. And we couldn't get a straight answer about what to tell the public. Now, there is more criticism of the company and we're hearing concerns the industry may not be able to fix itself.

We first brought you the disturbing 911 calls, and on Wednesday, Air Products invited us back to their plant.

The last time we met, the Air Products plant manager defiantly told us nothing went wrong in their response. On Wednesday, he wasn't talking. His boss was. And we got repeated apologies.

"Clearly there are things that we can do better," said Paul Vallone with Air Products.

They did wrong. They didn't follow their own rules or the state's in waiting more than 40 minutes to call for a shelter-in-place.

"We want to apologize. We made a number of mistakes," said Vallone.

That's quite a change from the company which told us a week ago they did nothing wrong.

"We followed all the proper protocols," said plant manager Jacques Joseph when we spoke with him last week.

On Wednesday, Joseph wasn't around when we were. We're told he still has his job. He's been interviewed but hasn't been disciplined, despite not being able to tell a 911 dispatcher what was going on at his plant.

"So there will be a shelter in place?" a 911 dispatcher asked during the release.

"Well. I'm trying to see," Joseph answered.

"I need a yes or no. Is there going to be a shelter-in-place? I've been dealing with this for about 40 minutes."

On Wednesday, the company told us on site managers couldn't actually see the orange cloud from their control centers. They'll install cameras to solve that. But a week after the leak, they can't figure out why no one called 911 or Pasadena's emergency line.

"Specifically, why we didn't make that call right now? I would say that we don't know yet," said Vallone.

And they couldn't tell us who specifically will make the call the next time it happens,

State Senator Mario Gallegos represents this part of Pasadena and says laws need to change. As it is now, there's no mandate that plants call fire departments in emergencies like this.

"A lot of this is voluntary," he said. "Until we put it in law, we can't hold them accountable."

And if Texas won't do it, the federal government may.

"Something went wrong around the plant site, let's fix it," said Congressman Gene Green.

Congressman Green is asking for answers from the EPA and TCEQ. Apologies aren't enough for him. Without plans to avoid the problem in the future, Air Products' mistake could lead to changes up and down the Ship Channel.

"We may need to have an oversight hearing on why it isn't this being done," said Green.

The company tells us the unit that leaked is still shut down. They aren't certain yet what went wrong with the equipment and their communications plan. Until they know, they won't fire up the nitric acid unit again.