Thanks to the number of tanks on fire decreasing from seven to four on Tuesday, firefighters at the ITC plant in Deer Park were better able to go on the offensive and extinguish the remaining flames early Wednesday morning, ITC spokeswoman Alice Richardson said at a Wednesday morning press conference.
Though the fires have been put out, precautions are being taken as foam and water continue to be added. “Re-ignition is still possible, but with every passing hour that risk is reduced,” she said. Later Wednesday, another trail of smoke could be seen coming from the site. A spokesperson for ITC confirmed that due to a break in foam, escaping vapor from tank 80-5, which contains xylene, struck hot metal and caused re-ignition.
Richardson said they were unsure how long recovery and cleanup will take. "We’re still monitoring the [site] very carefully. We are taking an aggressive attack with our community and making sure everyone is very safe. I couldn’t give you an exact amount of time. But it will go on for quite a while.” She also said they still did not know the exact financial cost of the fire to the facility.
She apologized to the community for what happened starting last Sunday.
“Our goal is to be good neighbors. Good neighbors to our industry, good neighbors to our community. We want to operate safely, with minimal impact around us. We are sorry for what has happened, we are sorry to our neighbors, we are sorry to our community, we are sorry to the employees who still live there.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, involved on site since Sunday, continues to monitor the air from La Porte to Katy as well as near the site and downward in the plume. Water samples have also been taken though an analysis has not been released yet.
“From the start of this up until today, we’ve measured no hazardous levels of concentration," said Adam Adams, federal onsite coordinator for the EPA. "We monitor volatile organic compounds (VOC) and other items, and we haven’t received any significant hits at all. As well as no hazardous measurements monitoring throughout the plume.”
Just hours after Adams reported no hazardous chemical levels in the air Wednesday morning, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality showed an "Unhealthy" air patch at 1 p.m. on its AIRNow.gov site. Seven hours later, the same graph showed the patch decreased to "Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups." The ITC directed questions regarding the fluctuation to TCEQ.
Also Wednesday, Shell Deer Park located near ITC had issued a shelter in place citing low levels of benzene on site. A Shell spokesman had sent Fox 26 a statement including, "In this case, the chemical readings we are seeing are at or below the OSHA permissible exposure limits but above Shell HSSE standards requiring a shelter in place." That was lifted at 2:15 Wednesday.
Benzene is a chemical found in gasoline, auto emissions and even cigarette smoke. According to the American Cancer Society, short term effects of benzene include drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, tremors, and confusion/ unconsciousness.
At the morning press conference, asked whether the chemicals beneath the foam blanket are toxic and what would happen in the event vapors were released, David Wascome, ITC senior vice president of Operations responded, “We are treating this out of an abundance of caution. We are treating it as if those could be VOC. That’s the point of the blanket, which is why we are monitoring and re-applying. Our first plan of action of remediation is to remove the material out of that dike tank wall area, to get it into a safe place inside a storage area.”
Asked whether the foam itself was hazardous, Adams said, "There is a lot of foam that was used. We are looking into any potential impacts, we are taking water samples and don’t have the results yet.”
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Although company officials said the exact cause of the fire remains unknown, they said it is certain it began at tank 80-8, a tank containing naphtha with a capacity of 80,000 barrels which was 90 percent full prior to the fire.
Because of the heavy level of foam and water covering the area, ITC offficials were still unsure how many of the 15 burned out completely. "Four of the 15 don't appear to be damaged, but obviously with the amount of heat exposed we’ll have to take all those most likely out of service," Wascome said. The remaining tanks contain a gasoline oil base, pyrolysis gas, and toluene.
ITC officials said they will investigate further as soon as it's safe to allow personnel near the site. The Harris County Fire investigative team has begun its own investigation, Richardson said.
The EPA declined to comment on whether or not it will undertake a separate investigation. “The EPA's focus is the emergency response containing the incident, stopping it, and cleaning it up. This will continue until we get done and there is no potential threat to the public and the environment,” Adams said.