Houston-Area Chemical Blaze Intensifies After Loss of Water Pressure

By ,  Simon Casey and | March 19, 2019

A fire at a petrochemical storage facility that’s covered Houston in a thick pall of smoke for the past two days intensified overnight after firefighters briefly lost water pressure.

Two additional storage tanks are ablaze, bringing the total to eight, Intercontinental Terminals Co., the facility’s owner, said in an update in the early hours of Tuesday. The water pressure was subsequently restored and additional help in fighting the fire is expected to be on hand later this morning, it said.

The blaze is affecting tanks that store liquids used to make gasoline. The Deer Park facility, about 18 miles east of the city, has a total of 242 tanks located near the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest ports along the Gulf Coast. First responders said yesterday that the fire will likely burn for two more days.

“Air monitoring continues,” said ITC, a unit of Tokyo-based Mitsui & Co. “Readings are currently well below hazardous levels.”

Still, Houston residents were urged on Monday to stay inside and nearby schools and highways were closed as fumes soared up into the sky causing a black haze across the city.

The fire “demonstrates how chemical disasters happen far too often in our region, often due to lax regulatory oversight and enforcement,” said Stephanie Thomas, researcher for Public Citizen, which advocates for environmental protection.

She criticized the Trump administration for seeking to reduce funding to the Environmental Protection Agency and other government plans “which sought to bring greater safety to communities like Deer Park that are surrounded by the petrochemical industry.”

Potential health effects of the smoke include coughing, difficulty breathing and irritation to eyes and throat, according to the One Breath Partnership, an organization that works to improve air quality.

“You can really smell & taste it now,” real-estate agent Jon Gardella said on Twitter, referring to the black smog enveloping Houston on Monday morning.

Ships in the area at the time of the incident have been cleared out and they are currently not permitted to enter or depart the area, U.S. Coast Guard Watch Supervisor Alberto Hernandez said by phone Monday morning.

Prices for naphtha on the U.S. Gulf Coast rose 2.45 cents to $1.5002 a gallon Monday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The tank farm occupies 265 acres on the Houston Ship Channel east of the city. It can store more than 13 million barrels of chemicals, petroleum, fuel oil and gases. It serves marine, train and trucking transport with five tanker berths and its own rail spur.

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