Fire At Petrochemical Facility Outside Houston Isn't Dangerous, Company And Texas Officials Say

Mar 18, 2019

Chemicals detected from a fire at a Deep Park petrochemical storage facility do not represent a public health concern, according to the company that owns the facility.

"All hand-held air monitoring was conducted in the breathing zone,” officials with Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) said at a news conference, releasing a report from the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health. The air quality is being monitored with devices in the facility and surrounding community.

The fire at the facility, about 15 miles southeast of Houston, started Sunday morning and has spread to multiple tanks. ITC spokesperson Alice Richardson said three tanks were on fire as of Monday afternoon and another three were experiencing intermittent fires.

Richardson said the report has been submitted to government agencies overseeing the incident. She added emergency responders are making headway controlling the fire, which has caused a massive smoke plume that can be seen from downtown Houston.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said earlier Monday that it hadn’t detected “any immediate health concerns at ground level.”

The agency is providing updates, including a map with real-time data from stationary monitoring sites, online.

Additionally, the TCEQ is arranging for a NASA special airplane, the ASPECT, to monitor air quality. Controversy sparked recently after an investigative story by the LA Times reported the EPA and the TCEQ discouraged NASA from flying the plane in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Harris County is monitoring air quality using devices that can detect dangerous chemicals such as benzene. The cities of Houston, La Porte and Pasadena are also monitoring air quality.

Harris County meteorologist Jeff Lindner said the plume is about 3,000 or 4,000 feet above ground level and is expected to go down to 300 or 400 feet by evening, but “it would need to come all the way to the ground for there to be impacts at the surface.”

Emergency responders said the fire could take about two days to burn out.

Channel Industries Mutual Aid (CIMA), a nonprofit that specializes in firefighting and hazardous material handling, said emergency responders are in defensive mode, meaning they will let the fire burn itself out. 

ITC said morning air-quality readings were “well below hazardous levels,” so officials lifted a shelter-in-place order for Deer Park residents. Still, city and county officials warned that smoke from the fire could cause skin and eye irritation and respiratory issues.

The Deer Park Independent School District and La Porte ISD canceled classes for the day.

State Highway 225 was re-opened Monday, through portions of Independence Parkway will remain closed until further notice.

The fire includes tanks holding the chemicals naphtha and xylene, components of gasoline, and toluene, a chemical used to produce nail polish remover, glues and paint thinner.

The company said in a statement that operations to reduce the amount of combustible material in the tank containing naphtha are ongoing. All personnel are accounted for and there have been no injuries reported.

ITC says low levels of particulate matter have been detected. A volatile organic compound was found in air 6 miles southwest of their facility. 

Crews are using foam to try and contain the fire. The risk of explosion is minimal, the company said, and crews are working to reduce the possibility. 

Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Houston, told Houston Matters the explosion risk is low because there’s not enough oxygen or pressure in the tanks.

He said the fire is producing some air pollution in the form of particulate matter and it’s releasing raw hydrocarbons into the environment, including nitrogen oxide, but the levels don’t look alarming for now.

Elena Craft, senior director of climate and health with the Environmental Defense Fund, told Houston Matters the nonprofit can’t make its own assessment of the situation because it doesn't have the information the responding agencies are collecting.

“We’re just kind of meant to believe the assessment that they’ve made," she said. "I think that’s problematic."

Craft said the formation of secondary pollutants like ozone is a concern.

“The fire is still burning and, so, there’s a lot of material there that’s been combusted that could potentially contribute to air quality issues in other places,” she said.

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the cause of the fire with help from ITC.

ITC plans to provide another update Tuesday morning.

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This post has been updated.

From Houston Public Media