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Industrial Safety

Houston chemical distribution tank farm burns, cause unknown

Community told to shelter in place, Houston ship channel partially closed

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
March 26, 2019

20190326lnp2-fire.jpg
Credit: Xinhua News Agency/Newscom
The fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company facility in Deer Park, Texas, started on March 17 and burned for three days.

The cause of a massive fire at a petrochemical storage and distribution facility near Houston remains unknown, more than a week after the blaze and resulting smoke and chemical releases resulted in shelter-in-place orders for residents and shut down the Houston ship channel. No workers were injured or killed.

In all, 11 above-ground chemical storage tanks, each with a capacity of 80,000 barrels (12.7 million L), caught fire on March 17 and burned for three days. Residents of nearby Deer Park, which abuts the Houston ship channel, were twice ordered to stay indoors, first because of the initial fire and chemical releases and then again several days later following more releases due to a containment dam breach. Also, throughout the week several smaller fires broke out but were quickly contained.

A 10-mile stretch of the busy ship channel remained closed as of C&EN’s deadline.

Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC), a subsidiary of Mitsui & Co., owns and operates the large tank facility. It is one of two ITC terminal centers along the Houston ship channel.

The Deer Park facility provides chemicals to regional companies and has 242 tanks with a total storage capacity of 13.1 million barrels (2.1 million m3 or 2.1 billion L). It holds petrochemical liquids and gases as well as fuel oil, bunker oil, and distillates, according to a company statement. The terminal has five ship docks and ten barge docks, rail and truck access, and multiple pipeline connections.

In a brief statement, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said it would begin an investigation of the accident the week of March 25. ITC will become the ninth chemical distribution facility accident to be investigated by the board since it was established in 1998. The 11 tanks that caught fire were among 15 located in a specific portion of the tank farm, an ITC spokesperson said. Two tanks were empty. Plant and emergency personal are attempting to drain the tanks’ contents that remain following the fire, evaporation, and leakage. As of C&EN’s deadline, accident specifics were limited because personnel were unable to get to the site, the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the state of Texas has filed an environmental lawsuit against ITC seeking unspecified injunctive relief and civil penalties, alleging that the fire released air pollution in violation of the Texas Clean Air Act. In the suit, the state attorney general’s office specifically highlighted benzene releases, noting that residents of Deer Park and neighboring Galena Park were twice told to stay indoors because of concerns about unhealthy air quality. Also, schools in the area were closed for more than a week.

Texas environmental groups are concerned about the impact of leakage to the ship channel of 280,000 L of a mix of firefighting foams, contaminated water, and petrochemicals once held in the tanks. The channel and bayous near the tank facility are being skimmed by US Coast Guard ships, ITC officials say.

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Some 1,100 federal, state, and local first responders and contractors as well as 34 vessels have been involved in the containment and cleanup operation, ITC says.

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