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Petrochemical Cleanup Continues As Houston Ship Channel Remains Partly Closed

Florian Martin
Houston Public Media
A plume of smoke from the ITC facility fire in Deer Park, Texas after reigniting on Friday, March 22, 2019.

An emergency dike has been repaired and a fire-damaged petrochemical tank stabilized during cleanup of leaking oil products that closed part of the Houston Ship Channel, the operator of the complex said Sunday.

Authorities are still trying to determine what caused a March 17 fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company's Deer Park facility, which left several petrochemical tanks damaged or destroyed.

Some tanks leaked oil products and a containment area was breached Friday, leading to the mixture reaching the ship channel, said Brent Weber, an ITC spokesman. The channel — one of the busiest commercial waterways in the country — was closed to traffic that day.

Weber said the berm was fixed by Sunday.

At least 52 vessels are waiting for the waterway to reopen, and the U.S. Coast Guard hopes to reopen the entire Houston Ship Channel by Monday morning, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Kelly Parker said.

The massive fire more than a week ago thrust plumes of black smoke into the air and burned on and off for days. Harris County and ITC officials initially said air quality was not affected by the blaze, but by Thursday the National Guard was called in and residents were warned to stay inside for their own safety because of high levels of benzene in the air.

The chemical evaporates quickly and can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and headaches, with worse symptoms at higher levels of exposure.

Weber said Sunday that the company had been concerned about the possibility of benzene fumes escaping one tank damaged in the fire that contained pyrolysis gasoline. Starting Saturday, officials were pumping the flammable gas out of the tank to reduce that risk. That container has been secured and air monitoring continues, Weber said.

"We are in a safe place as far as protecting our responders and protecting the community," Weber told a news conference Sunday morning. He didn't elaborate.

Company officials say no pyrolysis gas leaked from the tank into the water.

statement Sunday from Harris County Public Health said there continues to be a low health risk to the general public.

Some tanks were significantly damaged while others have very little product left in them, Weber said. Crews will be going through each tank to remove any leftover product.

Oil products could be seen along a 2-mile (3-kilometer) stretch of the waterway, according to Lt. Cmdr. Jarod Toczko, another Coast Guard spokesman. Most of the product reached a bayou but oil booms were helping to protect the area.

"The majority of the product is contained with booms," Toczko said.

About 60,000 gallons of oil product had been recovered from the water by Sunday, he said.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday that ITC has a history of environmental violations and filed a lawsuit against the company, vowing to hold it "accountable for the damage it has done to our environment."

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