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Harris County Prepares To Sue ITC Over Fire At Deer Park Facility

The company has received 300 claims so far. Clean up efforts are ongoing and there are pockets of oil on regional bayous and the Houston Ship Channel.

The Harris County Commissioners Court voted to sue ITC over the fire at its Deer Park petrochemical facility during the meeting held on March 26, 2019.
Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media
The Harris County Commissioners Court voted to sue ITC over the fire at its Deer Park petrochemical facility during the meeting held on March 26, 2019.


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The Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to sue Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) for the massive fire and aftermath at its Deer Park petrochemical storage facility.

The fire burned for most of last week, shut down class for over 100,000 students in the region and led to a breach in the dike wall that spilled toxic chemicals into the Houston Ship Channel. The company has received 300 written claims and 2,000 calls to its claims hotline.

The Harris County Attorney's Office will hire an in-house auditor to review ITC's actions during and after the fire.

"We'll be requesting the appointment of what's called a third-party auditor, who will come in and review all the actions of ITC in what led up to this event,” Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney told commissioners Tuesday. “We will also be seeking recovery on behalf of the county for all the costs incurred by the county itself."

Those costs include activating the county's Office of Emergency Management; monitoring air and water quality; and deploying mobile clinics. But authorities haven’t released a cost estimate yet.

Brent Weber, an executive with ITC, said during a news conference that the company will prevail using its insurance and “available financial resources.”

Weber said the company remains focused on cleaning up the tanks damaged in the fire and repairing the ditches that were breached in the aftermath of the incident. They’re concentrating on cleaning up tanks that contain benzene.

Response personnel are still foaming the tank farm as needed to maintain at least a 2-foot level of foam and pumping a mix of firefighting foam, water, and remaining product from the ditch using vacuum trucks and hoses.

At commissioners court, people packed the meeting to testify about the fire and overflowed into a separate room. Jamie Lawson, with the Houston Climate Movement, said that she hoped the incident would help break what she called "a pattern of environmental racism" afflicting East Houston residents.

Air quality monitoring

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said the air quality monitoring hasn't recorded dangerous readings of chemicals or other products in the last few hours.

Harris County, the cities of Houston and Deer Park and ITC are also monitoring air quality.

The TCEQ has updated information about the incident on this section of their website. Harris County also has air quality information posted online.

TCEQ response coordinator, Jeff Kunze, said the agency is still monitoring surface water, but didn't provide information about the analysis of the samples.

EPA on-site coordinator Adam Adams said the situation is becoming “more stable and more secure every day.”

However, Adams acknowledged there are pockets of oil on Tucker Bayou, Buffalo Bayou and the Houston Ship Channel. He said more than 33,000 barrels, the equivalent of 1.4 million gallons, of water mixed with product and firefighting foam had been recovered as of Tuesday morning.

The responders are using booms to contain the oil and chemicals that have spilled on the waterways, including Buffalo and Tucker bayous.

Benzene detected in water

However, independent water sample tests performed by the Galveston Bay Foundation found a high level of benzene in at least one sample taken from the Houston Ship Channel on Saturday.

Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, told Houston Matters that it’s possible the dike breach on Friday at the facility caused the high level of benzene.

“These were hopefully short-term spikes,” Stokes said. He added that benzene that’s on the water evaporates, so Stokes doesn’t think “there was a long-term exposure necessarily.”

He also noted that the ship channel doesn’t supply any drinking water systems in the Houston region, so the benzene reading isn’t a concern for drinking water. But it’s not clear if the chemical will impact Galveston Bay.

Stokes said another concern is the foam firefighters are using in Deer Park. The foam contains chemicals known as Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), as reported by NPR.

Houston Ship Channel

Traffic is still restricted on a section of the Houston Ship Channel. The Channel remains closed to traffic between Tucker Bayou and HSC Light 116 with the exception of coordinated vessel movement by the U.S. Coast Guard. The San Jacinto River is open for vessel traffic during daylight hours only.

U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Caren Damon said that the channel will be reopened when “we've determined that it is safe and there's no visible product remaining in the waterway.”

Harris County's Office of Emergency Management said Tuesday there continues to be a “low health risk for the community.”

The Ask-My-Nurse helpline remains open 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., 7 days a week to help answer health questions. The number is 713-634-1110.

State environmental officials are reviewing ITC's plan to dispose of the waste generated by the fire, while the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are investigating the incident.

The State of Texas announced last week it is also suing ITC for violations of the Texas Clean Air Act.

The Texas Department of State Health Services recommends not to eat fish from the upper Houston Ship Channel. The fish consumption advisory has been in effect for most of the upper ship channel since 2013.