Firefighting crews early Wednesday extinguished a petrochemical tank fire near Houston that had blazed for almost four days, spewing black smoke into the skies above the energy capital and spurring the hurried cancellation of classes for tens of thousands of children.
Smoke and steam may still be visible from the area, and firefighting crews will continue to spray foam and water on the tanks to keep them cool, as the possibility for reigniting still exists, according to a press release from Intercontinental Terminals Co., which operates the tank farm in the industrial suburb of Deer Park.
Officials shut schools in the city and in nearby districts late Tuesday, two days after the blaze began. Changing weather conditions raised fears the massive black smoke cloud that’s been billowing since Sunday would descend close enough to the ground to affect people’s breathing.
Forecasts suggested an end to conditions that allowed the torrent of smoke to push up into the atmosphere, at what government officials said earlier Tuesday was a safe distance from people on the ground. The switch in the weather “could cause the smoke plume from the fire to directly affect our school district,” the administration in La Porte said on Twitter. “Employees should not report to work.”
While the skies over Houston were inky and in some neighborhoods a pungent odor was pervasive, residents were told not to worry throughout the day.
“I know the cloud of dark smoke seems ominous,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in the afternoon, but there was so far no threat to public health. “We want to assure everybody that the air quality is being monitored around the clock.”
Pollution gauges showed the air was safe to breathe, probably because the intensity of the fire continued to propel the smoke upwards, said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist who works for Harris County.
What’s more, the “black disgusting blob” overhead didn’t contain any more toxins than would be emitted from a backyard fire pit, according to Ryan Sitton, a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s oil industry.
The compounds in the hydrocarbons stored at the facility burn so intensely and completely that smoke and soot are all that’s left to surge off in the cloud, Sitton said. Benzene and other chemicals are completely incinerated.
Not all were reassured. The town of Galena Park, directly upwind from the blaze, canceled after-school sporting events and other activities on Tuesday. Some people said they were holing up in their homes, windows shut tight.
“It’s very scary,” said Patricia Walker, 85, as she walked her dog in downtown Houston. She was out and about but her 9-year-old granddaughter, who lives close to Deer Park, was stuck in the house with her parents. “They didn’t allow her to go outside because of the fumes.”
Houstonians are no strangers to spectacular events at the warren of refineries and chemical plants along the Gulf Coast. An industrial fire, blast or leak occurs every 36 hours, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Gas flares and the occasional orange fireball dot the southeastern skyline.
The huge dark cloud, though, was unusual. “Being an oil and gas guy, I didn’t freak out, but a lot of my friends panicked that we’re going to have a Gotham black cloud over our city for the next 10 years,” said Doug Tinsley, 36, a petroleum engineer.
Intercontinental’s facility in Deer Park has a total of 242 tanks located near the Houston Ship Channel, a primary port of call in the Gulf Coast industrial nexus that supplies a big chunk of the world’s fuel, chemicals and plastics. Intercontinental is owned by Japan’s Mitsui & Co., which said Wednesday that the cause of the fire hasn’t been determined.