Houston petrochemical fire put out after it re-ignites, had added to shipping woes

HOUSTON (Reuters) - A petrochemical fire was quickly put out after it had re-ignited Friday at a fuel storage facility outside Houston, which had compounded the danger from a containment wall breach earlier in the day that spilled chemicals and halted ship traffic in the nation’s busiest oil port.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke covers the Houston area from a fire burning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, east of Houston, Texas, U.S., March 18, 2019. Michael Sahrman/Handout via REUTERS

The fire in multiple giant tanks of fuel at Mitsui & Co.’s Intercontinental Terminals facility in Deer Park, Texas, was put out by emergency workers at the scene about an hour after it began. But lingering smoke and leaking toxic chemicals prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to halt vessel traffic from the ITC site near Tucker Bayou to Crystal Bay, near the mouth of the channel.

Police also halted traffic on a busy highway for a time amid the smoke and air pollution worries. Hundreds of people showed up Friday to be checked at a medical clinic in Deer Park after air monitors a day earlier showed a spike in benzene, a cancer-causing chemical contained in the tanks of gasoline.

Friday’s fire erupted on the West side of the facility and engulfed several of the 11 tanks damaged earlier in the week. The tanks contained fuels used to make gasoline and plastics. Each can hold up to 3.3 million gallons.


There were no worker injuries reported on Friday, a spokesman for Intercontinental Terminals said.

There were about 100 workers at the site on Friday, pumping chemicals from damaged tanks and trying to close a breach in the six-foot-tall containment wall surrounding the site. A portion of the wall suffered a collapse earlier in the day.

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The chemicals leak prompted the facility to call for a shelter-in-place order for the local area for the third time this week. ITC said emergency workers set up booms to halt the spread of the chemicals spilling from the site.

The spill led the U.S. Coast Guard to halt ship traffic along most of the Houston Ship Channel, creating a bottleneck of vessels looking to enter or leave terminals on a key industrial waterway that connects Houston to the Gulf of Mexico.

Movement was initially halted on a five-mile stretch between Tucker Bayou and Ship Channel light 116, said Coast Guard Vessel Tracking Service Watch Supervisor Derby Flory, and later expanded.

The breach occurred as emergency workers were pumping pyrolysis gasoline from one of the 11 tanks destroyed or damaged during a fire that started Sunday and took more than three days to extinguish.

Fumes from the exposed fuels triggered elevated benzene readings on Thursday at an air monitor located near the site. The company said the benzene likely came when the fuels were exposed to the air.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said containment booms were placed in waterways to halt flows into the Ship Channel. The Coast Guard was skimming and pumping contaminated runoff into storage containers, the regulator said.

ITC and emergency officials were working on a plan to stop the flow of chemicals, water and foam into surrounding areas when the fire erupted, ITC spokesman Dale Samuelsen said.

Samuelsen could not say how much chemicals and water were leaking from the breach. The barrier held back water, chemicals and foam from an area where firefighters poured up to 20,000 gallons (75,700 liters) of water and foam a minute during the three-day blaze that destroyed the huge tanks.

Reporting by Gary McWilliams and Collin Eaton; editing by Marguerita Choy and James Dalgleish