Texas legislative committees meet to prevent another Deer Park chemical fire


photo by Steve Bittinger

Texas legislative committees began searching  last Friday for information on how to prevent another major chemical fire from occurring.

Rep. Mary Ann Perez of Harris County reviewed 911 calls and news reports from the first hour of the fire during which local officials did not know which chemicals were burning or their effect on air quality.

“That was very disturbing to me because I would imagine you would need information timely enough to know, No. 1, what was burning in order for you to call a shelter-in-place?” Perez said. “In a best case scenario, how soon would you like to know what’s burning?”

The chemical fire broke out on Sunday, March 17 at the Intercontinental Terminal Co. (ITC) facility in Deer Park burning 11 tanks in the facility with some of them containing naphtha and xylene. Perez and other lawmakers pushed for companies to report basic information about chemical fires immediately, but Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton believes the response was timely and appropriate.

“I don’t think legislation’s going to solve this, whether it be here on the state level or Washington,” Mouton said.

The fire raged for 3 days, in which it created a massive black plume in the sky. It rose into the sky, peaking at over four thousand feet.

“It didn’t look real,” senior Isabel Vandernoort said. “I was standing about a mile away, and all you could see was a black sky. When I was there, the fire had stopped, and it was just smoke.”

Despite air quality concerns, the air was mostly fine when it was checked due to the plume’s height.

“We continue monitoring the air quality, in and around the area, in several locations. As of this time, they’re still within normal range,” Davis Wascome, ITC vice president of operations, said the day the fire began.

The fire was extinguished on Wednesday, March 20, but shortly after Friday, a flare-up occurred that was quickly extinguished the same day. The plume was much lower in this fire, dropping black ash on the ground. A more serious health concern arose from a wall breach in the flare-up which dumped chemicals into the Houston Ship Channel, later polluting the Buffalo River. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is investigating the spill, and found severe levels of pollutants in the water.

“The agency is evaluating for 117 constituents as part of a thorough lab analysis,” the TCEQ stated in a press release on March 24.

The state of Texas is suing ITC for damages from the fire, primarily focused around the air pollution from the fire.

“Due to the dynamic, ongoing investigation of this incident, only air quality violations have been cited in the State of Texas lawsuit against ITC, LLC,” TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker said in a statement. “Any additional violations, including surface water quality, will be referred to the Office of Attorney General for civil enforcement as part of this action.”

The ITC is offering a site to file claims directly with the company over personal damages, but it waives the right to sue them later over those damages if there are further complications.

“That is 100% absolutely true,” Houston attorney Ryan Zehl said to KHOU 11. “There’s no way that a company is going to compensate someone in the claims process and then allow the possibility of future liability to exist.”