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Industrial Safety

Fire at Shell’s Deer Park, Texas, plant burns for days

Incident in an olefins unit sends 9 to the hospital with no serious injuries reported

by Rick Mullin
May 8, 2023

Fire and black smoke rise from a burning chemical plant.
Credit: Raquel Natalicchio/Houston Chronicle via AP
A fire in an olefins unit of Shell chemical plant in Deer Park, Texas, produced intense flames and a black column of smoke. It reignited twice over the weekend.

A fire that started just before 3:00 p.m. Friday, May 5th, at a Shell petrochemical facility in Deer Park, Texas, burned through the weekend.

Shell reported that all site personnel were accounted for shortly after the incident occurred. Nine contractors were hospitalized and released with no serious injuries, the company said.

A statement from Shell on its Deer Park Facebook page read that air monitoring detected no harmful levels of chemicals. No shelter in place order was issued by Harris County. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) monitored air in the region surrounding the plant.

The fire reignited on Saturday afternoon and again on Sunday after Shell had reported it extinguished. The company said that the water required to control the fire over the weekend exceeded the capacity of wastewater storage at the facility. Runoff water was directed to the Houston Ship Channel and a boom was deployed “to prevent product from entering the channel,” according to the company.

Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), a community advocacy group, issued a statement on Facebook calling for elected officials to have the US Environmental Protection Agency “ensure and deploy” air monitoring during and after the fire. “It is not enough to only conduct emergency air monitoring as we are concerned about water runoff from the site as well as the air quality after the fire is out,” the statement reads.

Citing TCEQ data in a response to the accident, Air Alliance Houston, an environmental and public health advocacy group, noted that Shell’s Deer Park plant has logged over 200 emergency response events since 2002. Shell did not respond to a call for comment.

A huge column of black smoke rose over the plant as it burned on Friday, raising concern among local residents in an area prone to industrial accidents.

“These things happen so frequently,” Bryan Parras, a co-founder of TEJAS and a campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Healthy Communities campaign in the region, says. “It’s really disruptive and impossible to react to every one every time. So people have to figure out how to continue with their lives, mitigate harm and exposure, and notify friends and family in the impacted area. That is the reality for tens of thousands of people in the area. It’s not fair, but it’s become a normal way of life.”

His cousin Annie Parras, who lives in Deer Park, expressed frustration regarding access to information on what is being produced at the many refining and chemical manufacturing facilities in the region. “There are so many out there, nothing states what they are making,” she says. “Unless you go as a concerned person and look it up, you are not going to know unless something happens.”

Annie Parras agrees with her cousin that accidents such as the fire at the Shell plant are a way of life. “To be honest, I’ve seen worse in the area,” she said, referencing a larger fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park that burned from March 17–23 in 2019.

“But this was obviously a bad fire,” she said.


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