HOUSTON (Reuters) – Residents of two Houston-area cities were told to stay indoors on Thursday, and schools were closed due to air pollution from a petrochemical plant fire, and one city lifted the order at midday after levels of dangerous chemicals abated.
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
The three-day blaze at Mitsui unit Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) in Deer Park, Texas, was extinguished on Wednesday after sending a plume of smoke over the area from 11 burning fuel tanks. No injuries were reported, but air monitors detected high levels of benzene, a toxic chemical linked to cancer.
The City of Deer Park, 20 miles (32 km) east of Houston, had issued a morning 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 order was lifted at midday, 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.
“I’m not worried,” said Lillie Patton, a resident of Pasadena, Texas, one of the communities that closed schools because of danger from benzene fumes. “They’ve taken the necessary precautions. I appreciate they are using their brains and common sense.”
The city of Galena Park, a community of about 11,000 people east of Deer Park, also issued a shelter-in-place advisory that remained in effect at midday.
“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.”
Benzene is a component of gasoline stored in some of the tanks that burned at the ITC storage facility. The chemical has a pungent odor, and inhaling it can irritate the 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 as a carcinogen.
ITC workers were removing fuels from the fire-ravaged site, but a spokeswoman declined to say when the work would be completed.
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. A Royal Dutch Shell facility on Wednesday had ordered employees to avoid an area where it detected elevated levels of benzene. [nL1N2171FQ]
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) said vapors from exposed fuels still at the site could have caused the fumes.
Adam Adams, an EPA official monitoring the work at ITC’s storage facility, said emergency workers could complete removing fuel remaining in the tanks, some of which were exposed to the air, on Thursday.
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 continued to apply a foam blanket on the burn area to stop the escape of dangerous fumes. It is unclear what caused the release of benzene, she said.
TCEQ, one of the groups 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 Gary McWilliams and Erwin Seba in Houston; additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio