AP NEWS

Timetable for Deer Park chemical blaze indefinite

March 20, 2019

The stubborn blaze at the International Terminals Co. in Deer Park grew in size as it churned through chemical storage tanks for a third day on Tuesday as city, county and state leaders sought to assure anxious residents the fire posed no immediate health risk.

The officials pledged to commit all available local resources to assist in firefighting and protect residents from pollution, though they were unable to estimate when the fire may be put out and conceded that extinguishing the blaze is the responsibility of ITC.

“What I can say is, everyone is doing their absolute best,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who declined to say if she was satisfied with petroleum company’s response to date. “We are observing and supporting the situation.”

Fire crews working for ITC said they finally were able to fight the fire offensively after a two-day stalemate, with the help of foam retardant and additional personnel. The company shut off pipelines and equipment near the blaze to reduce the risk of explosion.

The fire has forced Houston-area residents to grapple with the consequences of living so close to the heart of the nation’s petrochemical industry in ways previous accidents had not. Unlike invisible benzene discharges in east Houston or a gasoline leak into Buffalo Bayou after Hurricane Harvey, the Deer Park conflagration has sent a foreboding plume of dark smoke over Harris County, visible more than 30 miles away. A Bryan TV station reported the fire has caused a haze in the skies over Brazos, Grimes, Montgomery, Walker and Waller counties.

Beneath the cloud, business continued as usual in much of the county, though communities along the Houston Ship Channel remained disrupted. Jacinto City and Galena Park ISD canceled all afternoon outdoor activities while a fifth of Deer Park ISD students stayed home from school.

ITC spokeswoman Alice Richardson grew emotional as she apologized to Deer Park residents, tearing up as she added about a third of the firm’s employees live in the small east Harris County city.

“This isn’t an event we wanted,” she said at a Tuesday morning news conference. “Many of my employees work in the city of Deer Park, they live in Deer Park, they’re out there fighting this fire ... they’re concerned, their families are concerned. So, of course, ITC would apologize to any of them.”

Around-the-clock firefighting efforts since the fire began Sunday morning have failed to quell the blaze, the origin of which had yet to determined.

Seven tanks were ablaze early Tuesday evening — up from five hours earlier — while two had collapsed; three others had been extinguished and three had yet to be touched by flames. The fire is within a block of 15 storage tanks on the southern edge of the plant. The tanks that are burning contain gasoline blends, base oils, xylene, pyrolysis gasoline and naptha.

“Fuel has burned off,” Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said at a news conference at the company’s Pasadena plant. “That may be what has to happen. What I can’t tell you is how long that will take.”

Two additional chemical tanks caught fire at the plant on Independence Parkway early Tuesday after water pressure dropped. Authorities originally said two fireboat pumps providing water to firefighters malfunctioned for about six hours, but said in the afternoon that information was incorrect and that crews were investigating the cause of the pump failure.

A worker who said he was at the plant Sunday morning described seeing smoke rise from one of the tanks, which developed into a fire within half an hour.

“It started on the ground and crept its way up the tank,” the worker said. “Everyone thinks a tank overheated.”

He added that tanks can overheat, but typically have a safety mechanism to shut off if needed.

Leaders address air quality

At a news conference at TranStar, Hidalgo, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton Jr. sought to calm residents’ fears that the plume posed serious health risks. Flanked by more than a dozen city and county emergency response officials, the trio pledged to devote all available resources to measuring air quality.

“I know the cloud of dark smoke seems ominous as it spreads over parts of the city of Houston, but we want to assure that the air quality is being monitored around the clock,” Turner said.

Dr. Umair Shah, director of Harris County Public Health, urged residents to check on relatives and neighbors who are elderly or have respiratory issues and, thus, are more susceptible to changes in air quality.

The plume darkened the sky north of the TranStar building on Old Katy Road, as if a thunderstorm was imminent. Passengers on aircraft approaching William P. Hobby Airport, 12 miles southwest of Deer Park, snapped photographs of black smoke billowing from the site.

Jeff Lindner, Harris County’s staff meteorologist, said the fire is so large it is creating localized weather patterns, much as wildfires do in the West. He said the plume soared from 4,000 to 6,200 feet on Tuesday, where it posed no risk to human health. Lindner said a fog Wednesday morning could pull harmful particulates toward the ground, though he pegged that outcome as only 10 percent likely.

The ash spewed high in the air by the blaze is far from being concentrated enough to cause a hazard to human health, said Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton, who visited the ITC site Tuesday.

“It’s annoying. It’s like walking through smoke, but it’s not toxic,” he said.

Hidalgo said Harris County is publishing real-time air quality monitor data online to keep the public updated. Each of the dozens of monitors near the plume on Tuesday evening indicated a low risk of air pollution.

The Chronicle asked if the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was testing the soil of the surrounding area or the runoff from fighting the fire. The Chronicle asked for the results of those tests, if performed, as well as the reports from any mobile air monitoring units.

“Specifics regarding test results and emergency response efforts will be available once the investigation is completed,” TCEQ spokesperson Marty Otero said.

Despite assurances from local officials, many residents near the ITC facility were reluctant to take chances.

Of the more than 13,000 students who attend Deer Park ISD, more than 2,600 were absent Tuesday. Matt Lucas, a spokesman for the district, said officials will ask the Texas Education Agency for a waiver to excuse those students and said students who chose not to come while the fire burns out will be excused.

“You’re the parent and you have to make a decision that’s best for your child,” Lucas said Tuesday. “We’re not going to hold that against them.”

Lucas did not know if wind and weather forecasts would allow them to keep schools open Wednesday, but said the district would call and text parents once officials make a decision.

Industry takes lead

Though Houston and Harris County officials are in constant contact with ITC — the firm has embedded two employees in the county’s emergency management headquarters — local government plays only a supporting role in battling the blaze. Most of the firefighting is being performed by private firm Channel Industries Mutual Aid, whose firefighters are specially trained for chemical fires.

Harris County has deployed its Hazmat team and Houston Fire Department Chief Sam Peña said he has dispatched an ambulance bus and crew at the request of ITC, though he said sending regular firefighters may be unwise.

“It is a very technical environment that they’re working in,” Peña said. “We will depend on the plant experts to tell us what they can control … as far as their concerns about the volatility of the product that’s in these tanks.”

He added that the best course of action may be to let the fire burn itself out, as extinguishing the blaze without securing its fuel sources could subject adjacent neighborhoods to hazardous, ground-hugging fumes.

Christensen said the county fire marshal’s office will begin its investigation when the fire is out.

Firefighters from the Deer Park, Channelview, La Porte and Atascocita also were assisting.

Staff writers Shelby Webb, Matt Dempsey, Nicole Hensley, Rebecca Schuetz and Julian Gill contributed reporting.

Zach Despart covers Harris County for the Chronicle. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zach.despart@chron.com .