ITC Deer Park Chemical Fire Investigation Reveals Startling Facts

On March 17, 2019, a huge fire erupted at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. (ITC) bulk liquid storage terminal which sent a large black cloud high over Deer Park and surrounding communities east of Houston, Texas.  The fire, which ultimately was allowed largely to burn out, spawned lawsuits from thousands of residents and Harris County for the pollution and chemical inhalation injuries. It further resulted in criminal charges for environmental law violations being brought against ITC as well. Now, a six-month investigation has revealed a number of alarming facts about the incident that suggest it could have been prevented.

ITC Fire Investigation Findings

On October 30, 2019, a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board revealed the findings of their six-month investigation.   Some of the key findings were as follows:

  • The fire began near an 80,000 gallon above ground storage tank containing naphtha–a feedstock or blendstock used to produce gasoline.
  • Naphtha was being released by the tank and both ITC and responders were unable to stop the release to control the fire due to the blaze.
  • The tank in question had been in service since 1972.
  • At the time of the incident, there were 242 storage tanks on the ITC property ranging in size from 8,000 barrels to 160,000 barrels storage capacity.
  • Butane is incorporated into the naphtha in the tank via truck deliveries and a valve system in order to increase the octane level of the naphtha.  The butane injection system was not installed until around 2014 and revised in 2016.
  • ITC did not equip the tanks piping manifold emergency nor remotely operated shut-off valves.
  • In the case of release or damage, ITC operators would have to try to isolate the pump by closing both the supply valve from the tank to the pump and the return valve–this was not accessible in the event of a major fire.
  • On the date of the fire, data readings suggest that a mechanical problem developed in the pump circulation system resulting in a release of naphtha.
  • The facility was not equipped with a fixed gas detection system to alert ITC employees of the release.
  • At the time of the incident in question, a fire erupted at the site of the release and ITC personnel could not stop the release. This led to other tanks catching on fire.

Damage Done to Person and Property

As a result of the fire, a number of harmful chemicals were released into the Deer Park area ground, water and air.  The most alarming air pollutant detected by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality was benzine–a mixture of liquid hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum that is a known cause of cancer in humans.  Benzine inhalation may result in the following immediate symptoms as well:

  • headaches
  • confusion
  • dizziness
  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • drowsiness
  • loss of consciousness
  • irritation of the eyes
  • skin irritation
  • tremors
  • unconsciousness
  • death (at high levels).

In addition to the benzine release, a number of chemicals were leaked into the ship channel when a containment dyke broke. This allowed a mixture of the chemicals from the tanks, the water, and foam used to fight the fire. An estimated 20 million gallons of waste was cleaned up from the site.

Unanswered Questions

While the investigation revealed much new information regarding why the fire happened, it has still left unanswered questions.  Why was this tank not equipped with a remote isolation valve that would have enabled operators to easily shut off the supply of naphtha?  Why didn’t a 242-tank facility have a fixed gas leak detection system to protect against a toxic benzine release? Neighboring plants’ alarms went off signaling the toxic release but the ITC facility was silent.  How many more petrochemical plants do not have up to date safety equipment and detection systems in place?

Know Your Rights

There is a potential 2-year statute of limitations to bring a claim for a personal injury caused by the negligence of someone else in Texas.  However, often in these cases, there are limited funds to cover the vast damages caused by a toxic chemical release. Thus, it would be wise to contact an industrial accident attorney to discuss your rights immediately.  Simmons and Fletcher, P.C., offers a free consultation by calling (713) 932-0777.