[Breaking news update posted at 5:40 a.m.]
A fire burning at a petrochemical facility in Deer Park, Texas has now been extinguished, according to Intercontinental Terminals Company.
“As of 3 a.m. today (Wednesday), the firefighting crews on the scene of the ITC Tank Farm Fire are reporting that all tank fires have been extinguished,” ITC said in a news release.
“Crews continue to spray foam and water on the tanks to facilitate cooling and prevent reigniting of the remaining material,” the release said.
Steam and smoke may still be visible in the area, ITC said, even though the fires have been extinguished.
No serious injuries have been reported.
[Previous story posted at 4:19 a.m.]
A fire burned into its fourth day at a petrochemical facility, located in the suburban Houston area, sending towering black clouds and even a fireball into the sky late Tuesday.
The fire has residents concerned about the heavy, dark smoke, even as authorities sought to assure them that the air quality remained in the good to moderate range.
The fire began in a single tank at the Intercontinental Terminals Company, a storage facility in Deer Park, Texas, on Sunday afternoon and quickly spread to a second tank, the company said. Officials had hoped the fire might be out by Wednesday, but it appears now that the timeline may go longer.
As of late Tuesday night, four tanks were burning at the ITC facility — which was a reduction from seven earlier that day, according to Harris County authorities.
Several school districts near the facility, including Deer Park and La Porte, have closed Wednesday and canceled after-school activities, due to the conditions from the fire and changes in the weather.
“Weather forecasts for Tuesday night and Wednesday call for conditions that could cause the smoke plume from the fire to directly affect our school district and, in an abundance of caution, La Porte ISD has decided to cancel classes for Wednesday, March 20,” according to the district’s statement.
Schools and businesses had briefly reopened Tuesday, even as some worried about the air quality in the area. ITC said that air monitoring near the facility has shown readings “well below hazardous levels,” and no injuries have been reported.
The cause of the blaze is under investigation.
How they’re fighting the fire
A specialty firefighting team from Louisiana has been brought in to battle the fire, and is using foam and water, ITC officials said.
The battle has now moved from a defensive mode to an offensive one, according to Ray Russell, a spokesman with Channel Industries Mutual Aid, a nonprofit that handles firefighting, rescue and hazardous material in the local refining and petrochemical industry.
He said they believe the fire will not spread from the area that contains 15 tanks.
“If it was up to me, we would just end it today and we’d put the fire out. But it’s not that simple,” Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton Jr. told reporters Tuesday. “It’s an evolving situation that is very volatile, that changes from one moment to the next.”
Questions about air quality
Ryan Sitton, a commissioner with the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates oil and natural gas in the state, said several teams, including those with the chemical facility and the Environmental Protection Agency, are monitoring the air quality.
“There is a plethora of air quality monitoring that is going on constantly, and it makes me confident that the people of the area are not at elevated risk right now,” he said Tuesday.
Despite such assurances, some health officials have expressed ongoing concern about the health impacts of the fire.
“I worry when officials say no health effects are expected,” Winifred Hamilton, environmental health science director at the Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN affiliate KPRC-TV. “They’re really talking about acute, immediate health effects, and we may still see some of those.”
The tanks on fire contain chemicals that go into making gasoline, including xylene, naptha and pyrolysis gasoline, known as Pygas.
Sitton said that chemicals like xylene and toluene can burn in a “disgusting blob,” but said there weren’t toxins, but could contain particulates.
Xylene is a solvent that occurs naturally in petroleum, ITC said. Swallowing or breathing the substance can cause death, while nonlethal exposure can cause eye, nose, throat and skin irritation, among other maladies, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Naphtha is a petroleum product resulting from the distillation of natural gas or crude oil, the library says. It can be an eye and nasal irritant.
One tank that caught fire contains toluene, which is used in the production of nail polish remover, glue and paint thinner, ITC said. Toluene occurs naturally in crude oil and is used as a gasoline additive, “and damage to the central nervous system is the main concern following exposure to toluene in the air,” the library says.
Amid health concerns from residents, ITC has set up a claims hotline and website for those who believe they may have suffered damage or loss from the fire.
ITC spokeswoman Alice Richardson became emotional Tuesday when a reporter asked if the company wanted to apologize to Deer Park residents.
“This isn’t an event we wanted or planned,” she said as her voice cracked.
She estimated that about 30% of the employees live in Deer Park.
“They’re out there fighting this fire the best they can … their family is of concern. So of course, ITC would apologize to any of them.”
According to ITC, the Deer Park terminal opened in 1972 and has capacity for 2.2 million cubic meters — more than a half billion gallons — of storage for “all kinds of petrochemical liquids and gases, as well as fuel oil, bunker oil and distillates.”
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Harris County have been in legal battles over spills at the facility in previous years, according to court documents.