Petrochemical disaster still hampers efforts to clear Houston shipping bottleneck

Smoke covers the Houston area from a fire burning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, east of Houston, Texas, U.S., March 18, 2019. Michael Sahrman/Handout via REUTERS

HOUSTON (Reuters) – The backlog of vessels waiting to move through the Houston Ship Channel grew on Monday while it remained closed to traffic for a third day as emergency workers attempted to clear a petrochemical spill from the Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) storage facility in Deer Park, Texas, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Monday.

Thirty-one vessels waited to enter the busiest U.S. oil port on Monday, while another 31 waited to leave, up from 26, respectively, on Sunday morning. The seven-mile (11-km) section of the Houston Ship Channel from Light 116 to Tucker’s Bayou remained closed, said Coast Guard Vessel Tracking Service Watch Supervisor Ashley Dumont.

Fuels spilled after a 10-foot (3-meter) wide section of a containment barrier breached on Friday at Mitsui & Co Inc’s ITC facility outside of Houston, sending fuel, water and fire suppressant foam to a waterway that connects Houston to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Coast Guard opened the San Jacinto River to allow two-way vessel traffic for three hours until 12 p.m. CDT (1700 GMT)on Monday. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality continued to assess the contamination levels in the channel. The Coast Guard did not have a timeline to reopen the port, Dumont said.

(Reporting by Collin Eaton in Houston; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marguerita Choy)

Houston suburbs order residents indoors, close schools after chemical plant fire

Smoke rises from a fire burning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, east of Houston, Texas, U.S., March 18, 2019. Jaimie Meldrum/@jamiejow/Handout via REUTERS

By Brendan O’Brien

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Residents of two Houston-area cities were told to stay indoors and schools in six communities were closed on Thursday due to air pollution after a petrochemical plant fire.

The three-day blaze at Mitsui unit Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) in Deer Park, Texas, was extinguished on Wednesday after it destroyed 11 giant fuel tanks. No injuries were reported, but authorities testing the air detected high levels of benzene, a toxic chemical which has been linked to cancer.

The City of Deer Park, 20 miles (32 km) east of Houston, issued a shelter-in-place advisory to its 34,000 residents after reports of high levels of benzene or other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) within city limits, the municipality said on its website.

Residents were advised to remain indoors, turn off air conditioning and heating systems, and close doors and windows, making sure to plug any gaps, holes or cracks with wet towels or sheets.

A state highway was closed in the city and the Deer Park Independent School District and five other nearby school systems canceled classes.

The city of Galena Park, a community of about 11,000 people east of Deer Park, also issued a shelter-in-place advisory.

“Given our very conservative air quality standards, we are at a level where out of an abundance of caution there should be a shelter in place,” Lina Hidalgo, the chief executive of Harris County which encompasses Houston and its suburbs, during a news conference.

“This is a dynamic situation,” Hidalgo said. “That is why we have so many monitors in place.” Officials said they did not know when the shelter-in-place advisories will be lifted.

Inhaling benzene, a chemical with a pungent odor can cause minor irritation to skin, eyes and the respiratory system, while severe exposure can harm the nervous system or lead to unconsciousness, according to experts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies benzene, a component of gasoline stored in some of the tanks that burned, as a known carcinogen.

ITC said workers monitoring the scene of the fire had detected increased levels of benzene but said these levels did not represent an immediate risk.

The state’s environmental regulator said monitors detected up to 190.68 parts per billion of benzene in Deer Park early Thursday, a level that can cause headaches and nausea.

Workers were removing liquids from some tanks, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said, adding that vapors from exposed fuels still at the site can escape.

The fire, which began on Sunday morning, destroyed 11 tanks holding up to 80,000 barrels of gasoline and other fuels. The cause of the blaze has yet to be determined.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said firefighters have placed and continue to reapply a foam blanket on the burn area to stop the possible escape of dangerous fumes. It is unclear what caused the release of benzene, she said.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is investigating the incident, estimated that on the first day of the fire, 6.2 million pounds of carbon monoxide and thousands of pounds of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and toluene were released. The regulator has cited ITC for violations of state air-emissions rules 39 times over the past 16 years.

The EPA is to test local waterways for possible contamination from the millions of gallons of water and foam dropped on the fire since Sunday.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; additional reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston; Editing by Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)

Texas petrochemical fire spreads to more storage tanks after firefighting snag

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A raging fire at a petrochemical storage terminal in Houston has engulfed two more massive tanks after firefighting water pumps stopped working for six hours, the company said on Tuesday.

The blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) in Deer Park, Texas, has been burning since Sunday when a leaking tank containing volatile naphtha ignited and quickly spread to other tanks within close proximity, the company said.

The tanks hold tens of thousands of barrels of products used to boost gasoline octane, make solvents and plastics.

The storage terminal on the Houston Ship Channel, the nation’s busiest petrochemical port, is home to nine refineries and petrochemical storage and loading facilities.

Pumps on two boats feeding water to firefighters malfunctioned for about six hours, ITC spokesman Dale Samuelsen said. That allowed the fire to spread late Monday to the two tanks, one empty and the other containing toluene, a volatile liquid used to make nail polish remover and paint thinner.

ITC, which is owned by Japan’s Mitsui & Co, said it will bring in high-pressure pumps Tuesday morning to help firefighters trying to contain the inferno within the area of 15 closely spaced tanks.

The company said on Monday the fire, which has spewed thick, acrid smoke that is visible dozens of miles away, could burn until Wednesday. Samuelsen said he had no new timetable for when the blaze will be extinguished.

“We are still in defensive mode,” said Samuelsen. “We will be bringing in additional pumps to increase the water and foam applied to the fire.”

He said the burning tanks are within an earthen berm that is collecting water and chemicals leaking from the tanks.

Ships continued to move through the 50-mile-long channel, which is part of the Port of Houston linking refineries and chemical plants in Houston and Texas City, with the Gulf of Mexico.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Fire engulfs eight massive petrochemical storage tanks in Houston

Smoke rises from a fire burning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, east of Houston, Texas, U.S., March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A fire at a fuels storage company at the Houston Ship Channel spread on Monday to eight massive petrochemical storage tanks, shutting schools and forcing residents in the suburb of Deer Park to stay indoors.

The fire, which sent a plume of black smoke across the city’s eastern half and was visible from 10 miles (16 km) away, began in a giant storage tank containing naphtha, a volatile component of gasoline, at about 10:30 a.m. on Sunday.

No evacuations or injuries were reported.

School officials in Deer Park, population 32,000, and nearby La Porte, Texas, with about 34,000 residents, suspended classes and told employees not to report to work on Monday.

Tanks containing naphtha and xylene, petrochemicals used to make gasoline and base oils commonly used as machine lubricants, were burning, officials of the Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) said.

The company said on Monday that a tank containing Toluene also caught fire. Toluene is used to manufacture nail polish remover and paint thinner.

The burning tanks are surrounded by several other storage tanks within a spill containment dike. Firefighters used a foam fire retardant on nearby tanks to try to limit the fire from spreading.

“ITC officials continue working with local first responders to contain the fire,” the company said in a statement. “The safety of our employees, the surrounding community and the environment is our first priority.”

Ships continued to cross the channel linking refineries and chemical plants in Houston and Texas City, with the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Coast Guard ordered ships not to dock at ITC or an adjoining terminal.

Air emissions tests detected the presence of a volatile organic compound six miles away from the facility. Levels were below those considered hazardous, ITC said.

The fire was not affecting operations at the nearby Royal Dutch Shell Plc joint-venture refinery in Deer Park, said Shell spokesman Ray Fisher.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Additional reporting by Rich McKay and Gary McWilliams; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Jeffrey Benkoe)