Houston petrochemical fire rages, Texas expands air monitoring
(Adds EPA reviews, gasoline pricing, paragraphs 6, 11)
By Gary McWilliams and Erwin Seba
HOUSTON, March 19 (Reuters) - Houston officials and
environmental groups raced to expand air monitoring on Tuesday
after a raging fire at a Mitsui & Co petrochemical storage site
produced billowing acrid smoke that could be seen and smelled
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 and flames engulfed two more tanks, the company said.
The fire began on Sunday when a leaking tank containing
volatile naphtha, a fuel used in the production of gasoline,
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. State and federal monitors
said air quality was safe, but environmental groups disagreed
and said they would conduct their own monitoring.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said there was
an increase in soot and other contaminants at ground levels
around the site but levels remained below those considered
unhealthy. Monitoring by an Environmental Protection Agency
aircraft also found "no significant detections," the EPA said.
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. He said the city had requested the EDF monitors.
The tanks hold flammable liquids that are difficult to
extinguish using water and foam suppressants. Five of the 15
tanks continued to burn Tuesday, 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. 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.
Gasoline prices on the Colonial pipeline, which sends fuel
to the U.S. East Coast from Houston, were up on Tuesday between
1- and 2-cents a gallon over levels prior to the fire.
"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 caught fire. On Tuesday, ITC added a
15-person crew experienced in battling tank-farm fires as well
as additional high-pressure pumps and suppressant foam.
"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
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.
(Reporting by Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams; Additional
reporting by Collin Eaton; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and David
First Published: 2019-03-19 14:58:26
Updated 2019-03-19 21:40:20
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