Fire in USA on March 18 2019 04:00 AM (UTC).
New fire erupts at Deer Park plant as leaking toxins close Ship Channel. A fireball again erupted into the sky. An unknown volume of chemicals leaked into waterways, destined for Galveston Bay. Deer Park residents peered out their windows at another plume of black smoke. Friday brought a bout of deja vu to the Houston Ship Channel, where for the sixth consecutive day firefighters battled a massive chemical fire that has so far burned 11 storage tanks at Intercontinental Terminals Company. "People are scared. I'm scared," said Jennifer Tijerina of Pasadena, as she held her 10-month-old boy, Sammy, on her hip. "Just information and reassurance would've been nice." A day ITC hoped would bring no surprises as the company carefully drained flammable compounds from exposed 80,000-barrel tanks devolved into a series of emergencies that exposed new dangers. Around noon, a wall surrounding the tank farm breached, increasing the risk that airborne and liquid toxins would be released and forcing a portion of the Ship Channel to close. Three hours later, the fire re-ignited in at least two locations, sending familiar smoke into the sky. An hour after that, Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen announced the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would join the county's probe, an effort to boost its investigative resources and make good on her pledge to hold ITC accountable. "They can bring in experts," said Rachel Moreno, spokeswoman for the county fire marshal. "They can bring in electrical engineers and fire science engineers that we don't have on staff." A beefed-up county probe coincided with a separate investigation announced by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, and a lawsuit by the Texas Attorney General, on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, alleging ITC violated the Texas Clean Air Act. ITC had little to say about Friday's developments, rescheduling an afternoon news conference for Saturday morning. "It is still under investigation," said an ITC spokeswoman who declined to be identified. Harris County officials struggled to fill information vacumn. Francisco Sanchez, the county's deputy emergency emergency management coordinator, said his office often must relay secondhand information to the public. "What happened at the site is a flare-up, or re-ignition of fire, which we saw the potential for and planned for," he said. "They're moving chemicals exposed to the environment, and those chemicals are not designed to be transported in that way." Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo declined to comment Friday, for fear of compromising the county's investigation. Jennifer Tijerina's husband, Sam, said he was frustrated by the amount of inaccurate social media posts, which residents often turn to when official sources offer little. "What's next?" he asked. "It's not right. It's not fair. It's not OK." The first sign of trouble Friday emerged before dawn. Around 4:38 a.m., one air monitor testing for carcinogenic benzene about 500 yards from the tank farm picked up an elevated reading, according to the Harris County Emergency Management Office. The reading was higher than one Thursday that prompted a shelter-in-place order for temporary Deer Park. An ITC spokesman said that because the Friday reading was "localized," there was no need for a public notice or shelter-in-place order. No other nearby monitors picked up elevated benzene readings, according to a map on the county's emergency management website. Shortly after noon, ITC announced a breach on the north side of the facility's perimeter that allowed chemicals and detritus from the blaze to flow into nearby waterways. "We have learned that a portion of the tank farm containment wall containing the product has partially collapsed. Industrial neighbors and the Texas Battleship and Monument State Park should consider taking shelter-in-place precautions," said ITC spokesman Dale Samuelson. Officials noted that such a breach could undermine the foam blanket that is coating the tank farm in the hopes of preventing flare-ups and the release of further toxins from the facility, where holding tanks began exploding on Sunday. Sure enough, the site's afternoon reignition and resulting airborne pollution led Port of Houston officials to close part of the ship channel from Tucker Bayou to Light 116. The Ship Channel Bridge also briefly closed. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said workers were trying to contain toxins from flowing downstream by placing additional booms in the water, and said an ITC contractor is collecting and storing contaminated runoff. "TCEQ is working to fully assess and mitigate any wider impact," the agency said. The wall breach came shortly after ITC officials said crews could spend up to 12 hours pumping pyrolysis gasoline out of one of tanks and that during that time, the risk of benzene exposure in the air will increase. "There's going to be a lot of agitation in the tank when we start the pumping," Brent Weber, ITC incident commander, said. "There is an elevated risk of benzene emission during this time." Pyrolysis gasoline, also known as "pygas" is a benzene-rich liquid byproduct that can be blended with other chemicals for use as a gasoline additive. That chemical was the source of a benzene spike Thursday morning, after it leaked out from foam covering one of the tanks. City leaders issued a shelter in place that lasted several hours. ITC officials estimated Thursday that 14,000 barrels of pygas remained in that tank. However, ITC officials said Friday that about 20,000 barrels remained. Crews attempted to pump pygas from the tank on Thursday, but the effort didn't work, Weber said, in part because of an less-than-ideal environment concerning the positioning of the pump, Weber said. Aside from the roughly 20,000 barrels of product in the one tank, about 40,000 more barrels are expected to be removed, Weber said. Not all tanks are compromised, but they contain pygas and naptha, which have some percentage of benzene.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo will be holding a news conference at Houston TranStar to provide an update regarding air quality near the chemical plant fire. The city of Deer Park announced a shelter-in-place order Thursday morning due to concerns about "levels of benzene or other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) within city limits."
A fire at a Houston-area petrochemical storage site continued to rage late on Monday and is expected to burn for up to two more days, officials said, sending thick black smoke into the air for miles around. Firefighters were making progress seeking to contain the blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC), with the number of giant storage tanks on fire reduced to six from seven earlier, said ITC spokeswoman Alice Richardson. The blaze at a site along the Houston Ship Channel in Deer Park, Texas, began Sunday when a leak from a tank containing volatile naphtha ignited and spread to others in the same complex, the company said. The tanks hold tens of thousands of barrels of products used to boost gasoline octane, make solvents and plastics. The blaze has not disrupted nearby refineries or shipping at the country's busiest petrochemical port, authorities said. The Houston Ship Channel is home to nine U.S. oil refineries that process 2.3 million barrels per day (bpd), or 12 percent of the national total. ITC, which is owned by Japan's Mitsui and Co, reported no injuries among its staff. Nearby residents were encouraged to remain indoors by the city of Deer Park, which lifted a shelter-in-place order for all residents imposed earlier on Monday. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had "not detected any immediate health concerns at ground level" around the plant as of midday Monday. The state was also seeking to bring in a specialized aircraft to monitor emissions at higher altitudes. The burning tanks held naphtha and xylene, fuels used in gasoline and plastics and toluene - a volatile liquid used to make nail polish remover and paint thinner. Other tanks held base oils commonly used as machine lubricants. Firefighters were seeking to drain naphtha from one of the tanks to deprive the fire of fuel. "It's going to be probably two days," said Ray Russell, communications officer for Channel Industries Mutual Aid, which coordinates firefighting departments from Houston Ship Channel plants. "It's going to have to burn out at the tank," he said at a briefing.