AP NEWS

With Deer Park chemical blaze out, county moves to investigation

March 21, 2019

After fire crews extinguished the chemical blaze at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. in Deer Park early Wednesday, the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office prepared to send investigators to the smoldering site as state and local officials pledged to closely monitor pollution from the accident.

“We will investigate the cause and origin of this fire. We will investigate all aspects of it,” County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said.

At the site of the three-day blaze Wednesday afternoon, firefighters put out a flare-up that briefly hurled a fireball into the air. Crews will remain on the scene to ensure the fire does not re-ignite, the company said.

The massive conflagration burned for more than 60 hours at the petroleum storage facility on the Houston Ship Channel before firefighters using flame retardant foam were able to put it out. Flames damaged 11 of 15 80,000-gallon tanks on the southern edge of the plant. Two were empty, while nine contained gasoline blends, base oils, xylene, pyrolysis gasoline and naptha.

Christensen said several key questions remain unanswered, such as how and where the fire started, and precisely what volume of chemicals burned. Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he would like to know why ITC only brought in an additional, specialized firefighting team from Baton Rouge, La. on Tuesday, the third day of the blaze.

“It’s just hyper-coincidental that you bring in these resources from Louisiana, and less than one day later, you have no more fire,” Garcia said.

An ITC spokeswoman said that when the fire began, the company believed local firefighters could extinguish it. When the fire continued to grow Monday, ITC decided to hire additional personnel from US Fire Pump in Baton Rouge.

Layers of flame retardant foam that cap the burn area prevented investigators from visiting the burn site Wednesday, Christensen said. In the meantime, she said the fire marshal’s office has begun interviewing ITC employees and photographing the scene.

Christensen said estimating the length of the probe was impossible, but said its findings would be turned over to other county departments, including the county attorney and district attorney, for possible action.

Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton Jr., who said the blaze was the largest tank fire he had ever seen in the small Harris County city, said the incident was personal for many residents.

He described visiting the scene Tuesday and seeing many Deer Park residents participating as firefighters and support personnel.

“In most cases, every one of these individuals … are people that live in our communities,” Mouton said. “They’re volunteer, in most cases, firemen that were taking their turn to go in and fight for our community.”

The ash plume that soared above Houston and spread to at least five adjacent counties largely had dissipated by midday Wednesday. Despite its ominous appearance, officials said the dark smoke posed no health risk to residents.

Still, they promised to continue publishing air quality readings from near the fire and throughout Harris County.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county pollution control department had created a “strike team” to take air quality measurements, which are published on a new website dedicated to the Deer Park fire.

“We brought in additional equipment for real-time processing of data,” Hidalgo said. “We brought in mobile devices… supplemented by the city of Houston’s mobile lab.”

Harris County Flood Control District Meteorologist Jeff Lindner said the clear, calm conditions during the three-day fire helped lessen the pollution risk to residents. The plume ranged from hundreds to thousands of feet in the air, far above most human activity.

With the fire out, Lindner said only residents near the ITC plant are at potential risk for exposure to pollutants from the site.

“Most of what is being emitted is very localized to that vicinity,” Lindner said. “No longer are you going to see this big, black cloud throughout the area.”

A leak at a different plant in Deer Park Wednesday afternoon offered a reminder of how frequent unplanned chemical releases happen in the Houston area. Shell ordered a shelter-in-place for employees after low levels of benzene, a carcinogen, were detected at its plant four miles east of the ITC facility.

A 2017 Houston Chronicle investigation found hazardous chemical discharges are a common occurrence in Harris County, the heart of the nation’s petrochemical industry.

Despite the outcry of concern from the public over the health impacts of the Deer Park fire and the smoke plume it produced, air quality in the Houston area was relatively normal. The Environmental Protection Agency’s daily Air Quality Index data showed good or moderate ratings for particulate matter and ozone Sunday through Tuesday.

From 2018 through Tuesday, there were 38 days with air quality ratings of unhealthy or very unhealthy for ozone or small particulate matter.

During the same time period, the greater Houston area has seen 54 days with worse ozone ratings than during the Deer Park fire. It has seen 30 days with worse small particulate matter ratings.

The EPA is conducting air and water quality tests at the fire site and in the plume, on-site coordinator Adam Adams said. The most concerning materials are particulates and “volatile organic compounds,” but no hazardous levels have been found.

“Had we gotten some significant results that were hazardous, we would share that information with our stakeholders in the community as soon as possible to take action,” Adams said at a news conference Wednesday morning at ITC’s Pasadena plant.

The EPA is also looking into the potential impact at the Houston Ship Channel, he said. Water quality tests there have not yet been returned, determining what chemicals may have infiltrated the runoff.

Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith said Wednesday that some residents in parts of Katy and Brookshire reported seeing some ash in the area or particles on their vehicles.

“There’s been some limited observation of, obviously, the cloud and ash,” said Smith. “Just small reports of that.”

Greg Goedecker, Emergency Management Coordinator for Katy, said his office had not received any calls about observations of ash.

The smoke caused more health concerns than actual ailments. A top official at Kelsey-Seybold’s Pasadena clinic said they had received an uptick of phone calls from people worried about the ominous-looking smoke.

Texas Children’s Hospital Wednesday afternoon posted a doctor’s blog entry on its website emphasizing the fire can create problems for “anyone with heart or lung disease” and “trigger asthma attacks and heart attacks” in susceptible people.

An informal survey of Houston area hospitals and clinics, including those in Pasadena and Baytown, found none reporting any visits by patients experiencing respiratory or other symptoms related to the three days of smoke.

“More than anything, people have questions,” said Dr. Victor Simms, managing physician of Kelsey-Seybold’s Pasadena clinic. “Will it affect my health, will it affect my baby’s health, what should I do different? People don’t know what to expect.”

Wednesday also was the end of school disruptions in communities near the ship channel. Deer Park, Pasadena, La Porte, Sheldon, Channelview, Galena Park independent school districts, as well as San Jacinto College, announced they would reopen Thursday.

Staff writers Matt Dempsey, Brooke Lewis, Nicole Hensley and Todd Ackerman contributed reporting.

zach.despart@chron.com

samantha.ketterer@chron.com