Two weeks after a chemical storage complex near Houston erupted in flames and menaced tens of thousands of people with dangerous fumes, the site remains too hazardous for investigators to approach.
Intercontinental Terminal Co. is still trying to drain millions of gallons of volatile oil byproducts from tanks damaged in the four-day blaze that began on March 17. The ground around the tanks is also saturated in dangerous fluids, severely restricting access to the facility 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of downtown Houston. On Friday, the company said they may be able to allow some access early this week.
ITC and its top executive, Bernt Netland, have been chastised by elected officials for their handling of the unfolding disaster that cast a mile-high plume of black smoke over the fourth-largest American city for days, paralyzed its eastern suburbs and severed Houston’s waterborne access to the Gulf of Mexico. Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen’s probe of the event has so far been restricted to off-site interviews.
“We haven’t been able to gain access to the site yet,” said Rachel Moreno, a spokeswoman for the fire marshal. “They’re still doing emergency operations and we need to wait until it’s safe for the investigators to go in.”
Christensen’s investigators won’t enter the site until the remaining tanks are emptied and other hazards have been mitigated, Moreno said. Clouds of cancer-causing benzene have continued to waft over the disaster site as well as nearby factories and suburbs, including one early Friday, according to ITC.
Oil tankers and other ships headed for the manufacturing nexus along the Houston Ship Channel have been backing up in Galveston Bay and the Gulf because of runoff from ITC’s facility that polluted the waterway. The U.S. Coast Guard commander for the region said he doesn’t know when things may return to normal.
Almost 20 miles of rubber barriers have been deployed to halt the spread of the oily sheen and protect oyster beds. Ferry service in the area remains shut down and the annual re-enactment of the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto that won Texas independence from Mexico has been canceled.
Day Update Sunday, March 17 Shortly after 10 a.m., ITC’s Deer Park facility catches fire. Monday, March 18 Fire continues, casting dark plume across Houston area. Officials say they expect the fire to last another day or two. Tuesday, March 19 Two more tanks catch fire overnight after firefighters lose water pressure. ITC says they no longer have a timeline for when fires will be extinguished. Wednesday, March 20 By 3 a.m., initial fires are extinguished. Site experiences late-afternoon flare-up that is quickly contained. Thursday, March 21 Deer Park calls for shelter-in-place order after monitors detect high levels of benzene. ITC tries to remove chemical from damaged tank but is unsuccessful. Friday, March 22 Shortly before 12:30 p.m., a wall collapses, closing the Houston Ship Channel. Later, three tanks re-ignite and are extinguished in about an hour. Saturday, March 23 Ship channel remains closed due to benzene plume above the water. Sunday, March 24 Ship channel remains closed. ITC says it’s removed 13,000 barrels of chemicals from damaged tank. Monday, March 25 Ship channel reopened under strict sailing restrictions. ITC says five tanks had been emptied, with two more targeted for draining. Tuesday, March 26 ITC says about 33,400 barrels of chemical mixed with water and firefighting foam has been removed from the tank farm. About 12,900 barrels of oily water mix has been removed from waterways. Wednesday, March 27 ITC Chief Executive Officer makes first public appearance in 88-second YouTube video. Thursday, March 28 More ship channel restrictions but it’s still operating at just 35 percent of normal capacity.ITC, a unit of Japanese conglomerate Mitsui & Co., may be facing billions of dollars in damages, penalties and clean-up costs. Every day the ship channel is closed erases $300 million from the local economy, Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. And that doesn’t take into account what ITC may owe the companies whose chemicals were burned and lost in the fire and subsequent spill.
Brent Weber, the senior vice president of sales and marketing who’s become the face of ITC’s response, declined to identify the owners of the chemicals, byproducts of the oil-refining process.
“ITC is a storage terminal only so out of respect for our customers’ confidentiality we do not release that information, but, yes, the customers of that product have been notified and we’ve been in constant contact with all of our customers,” Weber said on Friday.
Other entities investigating the incident include the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued the company for violating air-pollution laws.
Lawmakers may also take ITC leaders to task. State Senator Carol Alvarado wants the company hauled before the Select Committee on Texas Ports that she vice-chairs.
“I’m sure that because of this incident, it’s causing people to pause and maybe rethink some of the infrastructure around” the region, Alvarado said. “Who would have thought that this fire would have caused this ripple effect that is impacting potentially the global market?”