Federal officials raided two facilities of an environmental waste company in southeast Texas where three workers have died in the last six months.
Davilyn Walston, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said the Houston and Port Arthur facilities of CES Environmental Inc., were being searched and declined to provide more details.
Houston-based CES transports and disposes of organic waste.
Meanwhile, a fire was extinguished that broke out in a 10,000-gallon container at the company’s Houston facility Tuesday afternoon. Investigators were in the facility at the time.
Fire Assistant Chief Tommy Dowdy told the Houston Chronicle he did not know the contents of the container that burned in the back of a truck. About 6 p.m., fire officials lifted a “shelter in place” order for nearby residents to remain in their homes because of a chemical leak. Officials continued to monitor air quality at the plant and nearby neighborhood.
Details about the cause of the fire were not immediately available and no injuries reported.
CES issued a statement saying they were given no explanation for the raid and all employees were sent home by federal authorities.
“We are cooperating fully with all agencies involved in today’s raid. We comply with all local, state, and federal regulations and are confident that investigators will find this to be true,” Greg Bowman, CES vice president of finance said, in a statement.
Environmental Protection Agency criminal investigators served search warrants at both sites, a Justice Department spokesman said.
Dicker said he expected the search there to last three days, but did not comment on the nature of the warrant. However, Dicker did say investigators were testing air quality there.
Port Arthur Justice of the Peace Tom Gillam said he began investigating the Port Arthur site after two workers died from inhaling hydrogen sulfide, a gas produced by human and animal waste. Gillam said he alerted federal authorities after he discovered that hydrogen sulfide contributed to two of the three deaths.
On April 14, Charles “Brent” Sittig, 48, of Eunice, La., died at the Port Arthur site of severe heart disease; Gillam said exposure to hydrogen sulfide was a “contributing factor.”
Sittig’s mother, Shirley Pitre, said her son never complained about his job while he worked as a truck driver hauling waste for CES – first in Houston, then in Port Arthur. However, Pitre said she had questioned Sittig about the safety measures employees took when dealing with the waste.
“I asked him whether he had any breathing apparatus and he said no,” she said. “I knew he was into hazardous waste materials and they really need protection like HAZMAT suits.”
Pitre said the autopsy report found her son had heart disease, but no one knew. Despite that, she said she is convinced that the daily inhalation of hydrogen sulfide at his job played a role in Sittig’s death.
Another worker, Joe Sutter, 36, of Arlington, Texas, died a few months before of asphyxiation caused by inhaling the gas, an autopsy found.
In Houston, an employee was killed in a July fire while he was inspecting a tanker and a lantern ignited ethanol residue. His identity was not disclosed.
Neighbors have complained about odor and other problems at the Houston site since 2006, Dicker said. After two December explosions that damaged nearby homes, residents demanded the site be closed.
Pitre said she is not angry with CES but welcomes the investigation. She said she hopes Sittig’s untimely death will lead to protection for CES employees working with waste materials “so his death would not be in vain.”
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