Houston checks air quality from Texas petrochemical fire, smoke seen miles away

Houston checks air quality from Texas petrochemical fire, smoke seen miles away

Handout photo of smoke rising from a fire burning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company
Smoke rises from a fire burning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, east of Houston, Texas. (Jaimie Meldrum/@jamiejow/Handout via REUTERS)

HOUSTON: Houston officials and environmental groups raced to expand air monitoring on Tuesday (Mar 19) after a raging fire at a Mitsui & Co petrochemical storage site produced billowing acrid smoke that could be seen and smelled miles away.

The blaze at Mitsui unit Intercontinental Terminals Co in Deer Park, Texas, burned for a third day after firefighting water pumps broke down for six hours on Monday evening, the company said.

The fire began on Sunday when a leaking tank containing volatile naphtha ignited and flames quickly spread to nearby tanks, ITC said.

Thick acrid smoke could be smelled miles away in Houston and was visible dozens of miles away.

Air monitors have not found pollution levels in excess of those considered safe, said ITC spokeswoman Alice Richardson.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also installed additional air monitors near the site, but had no updates early Tuesday, a spokesman said.

Houston officials said there was a low risk of health hazards from the chemical cloud because it was several thousand feet above ground.

But Neil Carmen, a director at the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club environmental group, said the airborne plume likely contained tens of thousands of milligrams of particles, well above levels considered safe.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nongovernmental organization, was deploying 10 air-quality monitors to check for nitrogen oxides and soot around Houston and adding another 10 monitors in the near future, said Matt Tresaugue, an EDF spokesman.

The tanks hold flammable liquids that are difficult to extinguish using water and foam suppressants. Five of the 15 tanks continued to burn Tuesday morning, while two have collapsed and volatile liquids in three others burned out, ITC said.

A local fire official said the blaze may have to burn itself out to be extinguished. Each tank holds 80,000 barrels, or up to 3.3 million gallons, of liquids that are used to boost gasoline octane, make solvents and plastics.

"I can't tell you how long it will take to burn out," said Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen at a morning briefing. "I'm not going to give you a timetable."

Some of the water and chemicals have washed into the adjacent Houston Ship Channel that links the Gulf of Mexico to Houston, the nation's busiest petrochemical port, ITC spokesman Dale Samuelsen said.

Pumps on two boats feeding water to firefighters malfunctioned for about six hours on Monday evening, he said. As a result, two more tanks, one empty and the other containing toluene, a volatile liquid used to make nail polish remover and paint thinner, caught fire.

ITC added a 15-person crew experienced in battling tank-farm fires as well as additional high-pressure pumps and suppressant foam on Tuesday.

"We have been up to this point in defensive mode" trying to contain the fire, said Samuelsen. "Because of the expertise these guys bring, the expectation is we'll be able to go into offensive mode."

Samuelsen said the burning tanks are within a six-foot tall earthen berm that is collecting water and chemicals. Firefighters are pumping 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of water and foam a minute onto the tanks.

Source: Reuters/de

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