Harris County officials, environmental groups search for solutions after Deer Park petrochemical fire

In the aftermath of the Intercontinental Terminals Company fire that ravaged Deer Park for days in March, officials are measuring environmental and health effects and pushing for ways to prevent such disasters and more properly respond when they happen.

On March 17, one of ITC’s petrochemical tanks caught on fire. The blaze spread to several more tanks before firefighters finally extinguished it March 20. Harris County officials have learned where systems and procedures could improve since the incident.

“It taught us a number of things,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

Garcia said he will work to protect communities around petrochemical plants through a more comprehensive mode of response. At the same time, he said the county will continue to support the petrochemical industry and work with it to identify vulnerabilities and find preventative measures.

Immediately after the fire, county Judge Lina Hidalgo set up an air monitoring system so residents could have access to air quality reports in real time. The county did not have such a system set up beforehand, Garcia said.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had such a monitoring system set up in the Deer Park area, but it failed the first day of the fire. Garcia has allocated money in the county’s budget to get such a system for the Pollution Control Services Department. There should be redundancy in terms of working systems in case some fail or there are multiple emergencies, Garcia said.

Not long after the fire broke out, Harris County Public Health set up in a public park in Deer Park to give checkups to residents. Workers were there until midnight and saw over 1,000 residents, some of which were transported to local hospitals, all of which told Garcia the county needs to have a deeper level of response to such disasters, he said.

“We’re going to have to be more effective on the public health side,” Garcia said.

On March 22, the Galveston Bay Foundation began testing soil and water in the Houston Ship Channel for benzene and other petrochemical byproducts that can pose risks to human health, said Water Quality Manager Sarah Gossett.

The TCEQ was sampling areas after the fire but not revealing its findings, so the foundation decided to do its own testing, Gossett said.

“We actually went out and started collecting our own samples,” she said.

Not long after the foundation brought attention to the importance of transparency, the TCEQ released its findings. Gossett said in future disasters there needs to be more open communication so the public is informed.

“The increased transparency … has been very heartening for us to see,” she said.

One sample the foundation took showed elevated levels of benzene below the TCEQ’s standards but above the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended levels. Benzene is a volatile organic compound, but it does not stay in water for a long time; within two days, the levels had gone back down, Gossett said.

However, chemicals found in the foam firefighters used to extinguish the blaze do not disperse; they stay in the environment and can get into human’s blood and tissue, and the EPA considers such contaminants a concern. The foundation is awaiting results from sampling for such chemicals, Gossett said.

As a result of the fire, the Texas Department of State Health Services advised residents to not eat fish caught in the Houston Ship Channel. A previous seafood consumption advisory was modified March 27 to include fish caught in the channel north of the Fred Hartman Bridge, Gossett said.

With the fire affecting the seafood industry, the Houston Ship Channel, public parks, school districts and possibly area restaurants and mom-and-pop shops, the fire took a toll on the area economy. It is estimated the fire cost $1 billion to the Houston Ship Channel alone, Garcia said.

Garcia said he is happy the fire is now being investigated to see how it began and if any regulations were violated or if new ones are necessary. A pending lawsuit Harris County filed against ITC will help the county understand any responsibility or negligence that occurred, Garcia said.

While Garcia does not necessarily support more regulation for the petrochemical industry, he is opposed to a handful of bills in the Legislature he said would make it harder for municipalities to hold refineries and plants responsible for such disasters.

“We don’t need that kind of legislation,” he said.
By Jake Magee

Editor, Bay Area & Pearland/Friendswood

Jake has been a print journalist for several years, covering numerous beats including city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be the editor for and launch the Bay Area edition of Community Impact Newspaper. Today, he covers everything from aerospace to transportation to flood mitigation.