Houston Petrochemicals fire expected to burn for days

by Kim Boateng Posted on March 19th, 2019

Deer Park, Texas: A fire at a Houston-area petrochemical storage site continued to rage late on Monday and is expected to burn for up to two more days, officials said, sending thick black smoke into the air for miles around. The blaze at a site along the Houston Ship Channel began Sunday when a leak from a tank containing volatile naphtha ignited.

Firefighters were making progress seeking to contain the blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC), with the number of giant storage tanks on fire reduced to six from seven earlier, said ITC spokeswoman Alice Richardson.

The blaze at a site along the Houston Ship Channel in Deer Park, Texas, began Sunday when a leak from a tank containing volatile naphtha ignited and spread to others in the same complex, the company said. The tanks hold tens of thousands of barrels of products used to boost gasoline octane, make solvents and plastics.

The blaze has not disrupted nearby refineries or shipping at the country’s busiest petrochemical port, authorities said. The Houston Ship Channel is home to nine U.S. oil refineries that process 2.3 million barrels per day (bpd), or 12 percent of the national total.

ITC, which is owned by Japan’s Mitsui & Co, reported no injuries among its staff. Nearby residents were encouraged to remain indoors by the city of Deer Park, which lifted a shelter-in-place order for all residents imposed earlier on Monday.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had “not detected any immediate health concerns at ground level” around the plant as of midday Monday. The state was also seeking to bring in a specialized aircraft to monitor emissions at higher altitudes.

The burning tanks held naphtha and xylene, fuels used in gasoline and plastics and toluene – a volatile liquid used to make nail polish remover and paint thinner. Other tanks held base oils commonly used as machine lubricants.

Firefighters were seeking to drain naphtha from one of the tanks to deprive the fire of fuel.

“It’s going to be probably two days,” said Ray Russell, communications officer for Channel Industries Mutual Aid, which coordinates firefighting departments from Houston Ship Channel plants.

“It’s going to have to burn out at the tank,” he said at a briefing.

The fire had little effect on the price for regular gasoline delivered on Monday on the Colonial pipeline, which sends fuel from the U.S. Gulf Coast to eastern states.

The naphtha storage tank ignited first from a leak in a pipe, and flames spread to nearby tanks, ITC reported to a Texas regulator on Monday. Its report did not say what caused the leak to catch fire.

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

Tanks containing naphtha and xylene, petrochemicals used to make gasoline and were burning early Monday, ITC officials said.

The six tanks still burning are surrounded by nine 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.

Ships continued to transit 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.

“There has been no affect on vessel traffic other than at the two terminals,” said J.J. Plunkett, port agent at the Houston Pilots, whose members guide ships in and out of the channel. Ship access to docks at the ITC and Vopak terminals was restricted by the U.S. Coast Guard, he said.

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.

EARLIER — Houston Petrochemicals Fire: Shelter-in-Place Emergency in Deer Park

Officials say a second tank at the ITC plant has caught on fire as crews continue trying to put out the flames in Deer Park. The fire started just before 11 a.m. on Sunday inside one of the facilities on Independence Parkway just north of Highway 225.

The office of emergency management said a shelter in place remains in effect for the entire City of Deer Park. Residents are being asked to avoid going outside as they continue to monitor air conditions.

As a result of the fire, SH-225 is being shut down in both directions from Beltway 8 to Independence Pkwy. Independence Pkwy remains closed in both directions near the facility.

According to officials, the first tank at the center of the fire contains naphtha, which is a gasoline component. The second tank was revealed to contain Xylene, which is used as a solvent.

Officials say approximately 30 employees were on site at the time of the incident. No injuries have been reported and every employee has been accounted for.

According to ITC’s website, the company has 13.1 million barrels of capacity in 242 tanks, and stores all kinds of petrochemical liquids and gases, as well as fuel oil, bunker oil, and distillates.

Late Sunday evening, as the fire continued to burn, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo addressed the incident and decided to activate the emergency operations center.

Judge Hidalgo tweeted out that they are working in close coordination with Deer Park’s office of emergency management and residents are urged to heed it.

During a second press conference, ITC officials stated they would continue working with first responders to contain the fire. Air quality officials will also continue to monitor air conditions and pollution levels remain undetectable.

The cause of the fire is still undetermined.

What is Naphtha?

During a Sunday afternoon news conference, Intercontinental Terminal Companies officials told us that it was the chemical compound naphtha that’s burning in the tankers at their La Porte facility.

Naphtha is a gasoline component, which releases carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide when ignited. And it is highly flammable.

According to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, the following are considered health risks associated with naptha:

  • It can affect you when breathed in and by passing through your skin
  • Contact can burn the skin and eyes
  • Breathing naptha can irritate the nose and throat
  • Exposure to naptha can cause headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting
  • High exposure can cause drying and cracking of the skin
  • Repeated exposure may damage the nervous system and may affect the kidneys.

How to shelter-in-place

The following bullet points are from FEMA.gov:

  • Bring your family and pets inside.
  • Lock doors, close windows, air vents and fireplace dampers.
  • Turn off fans, air conditioning and forced air heating systems.
  • Take your emergency supply kit unless you have reason to believe it has been contaminated.
  • Go into an interior room with few windows, if possible.
  • Seal all windows, doors and air vents with 2-4 mil. thick plastic sheeting and duct tape. Consider measuring and cutting the sheeting in advance to save time.
  • Cut the plastic sheeting several inches wider than the openings and label each sheet.
  • Duct tape plastic at corners first and then tape down all edges.
  • Be prepared to improvise and use what you have on hand to seal gaps so that you create a barrier between yourself and any contamination.

What role is the weather playing?

Meteorologist Lisa Vaughn said winds are coming from the northeast at about 10 to 15 mph. Communities in the path of the smoke include Friendswood, Clear Lake, Webster, Alvin, Pearland, League City and Hillcrest.

An atmospheric “capping inversion” – usually in place each morning – is forecast to erode through the day. That means the smoke will be able to mix into the upper levels of the atmosphere instead of being trapped at the surface (where we live and breath).

ExxonMobil plant caught fire the day before

Saturday, the ExxonMobil plant in Baytown caught fire for several hours.

Harris County officials said the substance that was burning was gasoline. The smoke could be seen for miles.

“It was just like black cloud, big thick black cloud. Bad,” Arellano said. “It didn’t scare me as much until it did today. When I got calls, ‘are you evacuating?’ ‘are you going to leave?’ I mean I’ve got kids. Not little kids, but I’ve got kids. It was scary.”

Officials said they don’t believe it had any impacts on air quality, but neighbors said it was enough to make them think twice about where they live.

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