ITC Fire Has Lingering Effects on Community

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ITC Fire Has Lingering Effects on Community

Photo Courtesy of Associated Press: https://www.apnews.com/6fd4420cecd240dea79657bc67fb812e

Photo Courtesy of Associated Press: https://www.apnews.com/6fd4420cecd240dea79657bc67fb812e

Photo Courtesy of Associated Press: https://www.apnews.com/6fd4420cecd240dea79657bc67fb812e

Photo Courtesy of Associated Press: https://www.apnews.com/6fd4420cecd240dea79657bc67fb812e

Dani Fischer, Editor

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A black cloud of smoke covered a majority of the Houston area for about three days. Significant amounts of potentially harmful chemicals were lingering in the air, specifically over the city of Deer Park.

At 10 AM on Sunday, March 17, a storage tank caught fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company Deer Park facility. Within the first hour, a city shelter in place was called for Deer Park. By Monday, the fire had spread to six tanks; by Tuesday, nine. These burning tanks were full of various chemicals, some of which are used in paint thinner and gasoline. However; the Deer Park Police have records revealing that there was initially a struggle to receive information on which specific chemicals were involved in the fire. It is now known that the first tank contained NAPHTHA. This chemical affects the central nervous system and can cause respiratory system irritation. The second tank contained XYLENE. This chemical can be fatal when swallowed and entering one’s respiratory system. Other tanks contained toluene which is found in many products and workplaces. By Wednesday, all of the fires had been put out, yet there was the possibility of reigniting. Later in the day, another fireball broke into explosion, but crews were able to extinguish it quickly.

On Friday, Benzene was detected in the air. Pyrolysis Gasoline, a Benzene rich liquid byproduct, leaked through the foam that was covering the tanks. A shelter in place was immediately called for Deer Park and Galena Park.

AP Environmental Science teacher Dawne Welch could smell Benzene in her house. “I don’t believe them when they say everything is okay,” she said. “Everyone had zero supplies to be prepared for a shelter in place.”

Throughout the entire week of the fire, the air quality covering the Houston area had significantly changed. The air quality fell into the moderate range (51-100 ppm). The description for this range reads, “Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.”

Over 130,000 gallons of fire fighting foams were used to extinguish the fire at ITC. The PFA chemical compounds in these foams have a history of polluting and contaminating hundreds of water sources across the United States. These chemicals are unable to be broken down and last in the environment indefinitely. These foams are very toxic to human health. Both crews that apply the foams and consumers who eat contaminated fish or drink contaminated water are at threat.

Houston’s multi million dollar ship channel has had to deal with the negative effects of this fire. A leak at the edge of ITC’s property led to the flow of chemicals and debris from the fire into nearby waters. As a result of the brief re-ignition, a portion of the Houston Ship Channel was closed.  The PFA foams that have made it to the water serve as a threat to ecosystems and communities that are tied to the channel.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is filing a lawsuit against ITC, who in these fires, has violated the Texas Clean Air Act. ITC has a great history full of breaking environmental laws and illegally polluting air and water.

Citizens also are now keeping an eye out for symptoms from Benzene exposure. Some common symptoms after exposure to Benzene are headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and irregular or rapid heartbeat. Residents fear for the worst, because on the Friday morning after the fires, elevated Benzene amounts were detected in the air. These amounts were higher than those which caused an initial shelter in place to be called days before. However, ITC claims that because this significantly higher reading was localized, a shelter in place would be unnecessary.

“I can’t wait to see what it does to the value of our homes,” Welch said. “Am I going to be stuck there when I want to sell my home after retirement?”

Now facing the aftermath, ITC is working to clean up their facility. They are working to clean up the affected tanks, repair the damaged ditches, and meanwhile continue to put foam over these areas to keep the fire from reigniting. Thousands of gallons of oil product are being removed from waters.

“They need a lot more accountability because they had so many violations,” Welch said. “Was this all preventable?”