Residents told to shelter in place after Texas petrochemical plant fire


(Reuters) – Residents of a Houston-area community were told to remain indoors and schools were closed on Thursday after a petrochemical plant fire that burned for days released high levels of volatile organic compounds into the air.

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 early on Wednesday. No injuries were reported.

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 “action levels” of benzene or other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) within city limits, the municipality said on its website.

Residents were advised to remain indoors, close all doors and windows and turn off air conditioning and heating systems. They were also told to cover any gaps, holes or cracks with wet towels or sheets to prevent vapors from entering their homes.

A state highway was also closed in the city and the Deer Park Independent School District canceled classes.

The fire, which began on Sunday morning, destroyed 11 tanks of gasoline and other fuels. Before the fire, the facility had 242 tanks able to hold up to 13.1 million barrels of fuels.

The cause of the blaze has not been determined, officials said.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality 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.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official said on Wednesday that air-monitoring systems near the site along the nation’s busiest petrochemical shipping port found no hazardous levels of volatile organic compounds or particulate matter.

The federal agency said it will test local waterways for possible contamination from the millions of gallons of water and foam that were dropped on the fire since Sunday.

Some of the liquids leaked out of a containment dike and into a nearby drainage ditch that feeds into the Houston Ship Channel, the EPA official said.

The state’s environmental regulator said it was investigating the incident. The agency has cited Intercontinental Terminals for violations of state air-emissions rules 39 times over the past 16 years.

The Harris County district attorney’s office has assigned an environmental prosecutor for any possible wrongdoing, a spokesman said.

Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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