A fire at a Houston-area petroleum and chemical storage complex darkened the skyline this week. Thick plumes of black smoke and the release of chemicals led to the shutdown of schools, businesses and roadways. Even though the fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company’s Deer Park storage facility has now been extinguished, cancer-causing toxins were detected in the air Thursday and residents were told to stay inside.
What are tank farms?
A tank farm is a collection of containers, usually made from steel, used to store material for refineries, chemical and plastic producers as well as importers and exporters. Texas is home to more than 200 tank farms mostly located along the Gulf Coast with easy access to waterways, Bloomberg data show. Along the about 50-mile Houston Ship Channel, there are crude tanks that have 300 million barrels of capacity, according to the Greater Houston Port Bureau. ITC’s Deer Park terminal has 242 tanks that have capacity to store 13.1 million barrels of products, including petrochemical gases and liquids, fuel oil and bunker oil, according to the company’s website.
Why are they a hazard?
The materials stored are extremely flammable and tanks are often in close proximity of one another. In ITC’s case, a fire spread to a total of eight tanks in just days. Even tanks spared from the fire were exposed to extreme heat and might be demolished. The health effects to those living in nearby communities can also be severe. There are about 33,000 residents in the city of Deer Park and chemicals released in the fire could cause coughing, difficulty breathing and irritation to the eyes and throat. Cancer-causing benzene was still in the air even after the fires were put out.
Has something like this happened before involving ITC?
Yes. On the morning of October 7, 1986, a fire occurred while a barge was discharging a cargo of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, a gasoline additive, at ITC, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board. The fire killed two people, injured seven firefighters and consumed about 10,000 barrels of the barge’s cargo. The fire burned for five days.
Has the ITC terminal been cited for violations?
Annual reports by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) show that the terminal has been assessed more than $80,000 in penalties relating to seven complaints dating back to 2009. Online records maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency show that the terminal has had instances of non-compliance or violations in nine of the past 12 quarters.
Who regulates tank farms?
The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has jurisdiction to regulate onshore terminals, like ITC. It has begun an investigation into the incident, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Labor. The agency said it had no record of violations for ITC and last had contact with the company following a complaint in 2014. The TCEQ also has jurisdiction over permitted facilities like ITC.
Once the site is safe to access, TCEQ says it will monitor cleanup progress and ensure that any affected areas are handled appropriately by the responsible party, according to a spokesperson. TCEQ will also evaluate the emission releases associated with the incident and will investigate to determine compliance with applicable state and federal environmental regulations.