(March 25, 2019) Matthews & Associates Law Firm in Houston, Texas is investigating injuries caused by a fire in the Houston ship channel that started in Deer Park last week. Oil byproducts from a damaged storage facility run by Intercontinental Terminals Company went up in flames on March 17. The fire contaminated the Houston Ship Channel, creating a cloud of cancer-causing benzene and other toxic chemicals. It was one of the Gulf Coast’s worst chemical disasters in more than ten years. The fire burned for three days, then reignited on Saturday, May 23.
In the fire and aftermath, a cloud of cancer-causing chemicals that includes benzene hung over the ship channel for more than a week. The ignited chemicals were reportedly used in nail polish remover, paint thinner, and gasoline. Detections of benzene at the ITC site prompted officials to announce shelter-in-place orders for Deer Park and Galena Park. The U.S. Coast Guard banned vessel traffic on part of the industrial shipping route.
International Terminals Company at Ground Zero
The incident started with a wall collapse and fire at Intercontinental Terminals Co.’s already-damaged chemical storage complex on Sunday, March 17. Toxic gasoline ingredients, firefighting foam, and dirty water flowed from the site into the channel, while a benzene plume hung over the water. The toxic cloud posed a threat not only to ship crews and firefighters, but also to the thousands of people who live in the area. As the toxic cloud blew toward the city, Houstonians were told to remain indoors for several days to avoid the fallout, but long-term health effects are far from certain.
The disaster began when tanks holding byproducts of the oil-refining process at ITC’s facility erupted in flames. A mile-high plume of black smoke towered over the area and the city of Houston for days. Fire crews finally brought the the blaze under control on March 20, but it flared up again on Saturday, March 23.
Benzene alerts shut down Deer Park and other suburbs for half a day, while local news channels warned Houstonians to stay indoors to avoid contaminated air and fallout from the fires.
Nausea, headaches, Other Symptoms
At least a thousand people complained of nausea, headaches and other symptoms. They sought treatment at a nearby pop-up clinic. Fifteen of the most-severe cases were taken by ambulances to nearby hospital emergency rooms.
“It’s been a never-ending, re-occurring case of things not working out as planned,” said Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton during a media briefing on March 23, as the second fire broke out.
Local residents and millions of Houstonians were left wondering what would happen next. The Deer Park fire and fallout appears to be the worst industrial disaster in the area since 15 people were killed in the 2005 explosion at BP Plc’s Texas City refinery.
Resident: “The trust is not there.”
“There’s more tanks in there. Is it going to reignite?” Mercy Reyna, 50, asked a Houston Chronicle reporter. Along with many others who live near ground zero, Ms. Reyna has been suffering from headaches, eye discomfort, and chest tightness. “The trust is not there,” she said. “We feel like we’re not being told the truth of what’s going on.”
After the initial blaze was extinguished, ITC made two unsuccessful attempts to drain a charred tank holding pygas, a petroleum derivative composed largely of benzene. Early on Friday, ITC executives estimated they would have that tank emptied in about 12 hours. But then the wall failed and flames erupted nearby.
Benzene is a carcinogenic chemical, colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature. It has a sweet odor and is highly flammable. It evaporates into air quickly, but its vapor is heavier than air and may sink into low-lying areas. Hence the warning to all Houstonians. And after it falls from the air, benzene dissolves only slightly in water; it will float on top of water.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board Investigation
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board announced that it would be investigating the fire. The Texas National Guard dispatched troops to assist local authorities with air monitoring after the cancer-causing benzene wafted across the area. Besides prompting take-shelter alerts for some four million Houstonians, several roads were closed to traffic.
The Houston Ship Channel
The Houston ship channel is one of the busiest commercial shipping facilities in North America. It connects Houston’s manufacturing and oil-refining network to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Lawsuit over Clean Air Violations
The company said on March 22 that there were about 60,000 barrels (2.52 million gallons) of hazardous chemicals still held in the damaged section of its complex, the next day it no longer knew how much remained. Meanwhile, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he’ll file a lawsuit accusing ITC of violating clean-air laws.