Energy & Environment

2019 fire at ITC’s Deer Park facility could have been prevented by company, federal agency finds

The petrochemical fire near Houston burned for three days and released hazardous chemicals into the air and nearby waterways.


ITF Fire Drone
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
A petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company’s Deer Park facility burned for three days in March 2019.

A federal agency found that the 2019 fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company's Deer Park facility, which burned for three days and released toxic chemicals into the air and nearby waterways, could have been prevented.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, in a 100-page report published Thursday, noted that several steps could have been taken by the Houston-area company to prevent the initial fire as well as its escalation. The disaster led to multiple nearby shelter-in-place orders because air-quality monitors detected elevated levels of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, while roughly half a million barrels of hydrocarbon and petrochemical products, firefighting foam and contaminated water were released into the Houston Ship Channel, according to the report.

The three-day ordeal "significantly impacted the environment," according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. An analysis by the Texas Tribune and Public Health Watch, published in April of this year, found that potentially dangerous levels of benzene lingered in the air for more than two weeks after local shelter-in-place orders were lifted.

"A 7-mile stretch of the Houston Ship Channel adjacent to the ITC Deer Park terminal was closed, as were several waterfront parks in Harris County and the City of La Porte, due to the contamination," the federal report reads. "The incident did not result in any injuries or fatalities; however, the local community experienced serious disruptions."

MORE: Air Alliance Houston responds to ITC investigation (Houston Matters)


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Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC), which provides liquid storage capacity for the petrochemical industry with facilities in Deer Park and Pasadena, said in a statement that instrumentation upgrades and other enhancements have been made since the 2019 fire to help make the Deer Park facility safer and better equipped to respond to emergencies.

ITC continues to assess the report and to work with all the regulatory agencies in connection with their review of the incident,” the company said. “ITC is committed to maintaining a safe and operationally effective workplace. All of our people work hard every day to maintain good environmental stewardship and to protect our local community.”

The March 2019 fire in Deer Park started because of a failed circulation pump in a storage tank, which caused the buildup of butane-enriched naphtha, a flammable liquid, according to the report. The fire intensified after it ignited and spread to 14 other tanks in the same containment area, destroying all the tanks and resulting in more than $150 million in property damage.

The report also found that a breach of a containment wall around the tanks released an estimated 470,000-523,000 barrels of harmful materials into waterways.

It all could have been prevented if ITC had a formal mechanical integrity procedure in place at the time, according to the report, which said such a procedure might have identified problems with the pump prior to the fire. The tanks that caught fire also were not equipped with remotely operated emergency isolation valves, which could have limited the damage, and the tank where the fire started did not have a flammable gas detection system to warn personnel of a hazardous atmosphere caused by a leak, the report found.

"In 2014, a hazard review team recommended the addition of flammable gas detection systems near Tank 80-8; however, ITC did not implement this recommendation, and did not document why it was not implemented," the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board wrote in its report.

The report also noted that, while the impacted collection of storage tanks was designed "largely in accordance" with National Fire Protection Association 30 requirements, its configuration made it difficult for emergency responders to slow or prevent the spread of the initial fire.

Adam Zuvanich

Adam Zuvanich

Digital Content Producer

Adam Zuvanich writes locally relevant digital news stories for Houston Public Media. He grew up in the Houston area and earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas before working as a sportswriter in Austin, Lubbock, Odessa, St. Louis and San Antonio. Zuvanich returned home to Houston and made...

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