Houston Chemical-Fire Smoke Set to Descend, Closing Schools

By Joe Carroll and Stephen Stapczynski | March 20, 2019

About the photo: Residents look on at the plume of smoke rising from a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. petrochemical storage site on Tuesday. As a towering plume of black smoke billowed a mile above Houston for a third day, all attention turned to a concrete wall on the edge of a blazing petrochemical site that was built to hold back millions of gallons of toxic chemicals. Photographer: Scott Dalton/Bloomberg

A mile-high chemical-fire plume that towered over Houston since Sunday threatened to descend onto surrounding neighborhoods, prompting officials to hurriedly cancel school for tens of thousands of children.

Schools were ordered to shut Wednesday in Deer Park, Texas, the working-class suburb that’s home to the Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm, where the blaze is entering its fourth day. City leaders cited weather forecasts that show an end to the favorable conditions that allowed the column of black smoke to rise high above the city, leaving residents breathing easy.

Four tanks holding gasoline ingredients were still burning about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of Houston’s business district late Tuesday night, down from five earlier in the day, according to Intercontinental. Previous expectations that the blaze would exhaust itself by the middle of the week no longer hold, officials said.

Four nearby school districts — Galena Park, La Porte, Channelview, Pas and Sheldon — also told students to stay home Wednesday. The cancellations followed an apparent shift in the anvil-shaped column, which began to migrate north and then dip toward ground level shortly before sunset Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, pollution monitors across the Houston area showed the air was safe to breathe, probably because the intensity of the fire had pushed the thick plume high into the atmosphere, according to Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with Harris County’s flood control agency.

There’s a “black disgusting blob, but there’s no toxins in there,” said Ryan Sitton, a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s oil industry. “It’s the same risk as your backyard fire when you get ash out of there.”

Those assurances were met with incredulity by some Houston residents.

“It’s very scary,” said Patricia Walker, 85, who was walking her dog in downtown Houston. “I’m concerned for my granddaughter. They didn’t allow her to go outside because of the fumes.”

Intercontinental’s facility in Deer Park has a total of 242 tanks located near the Houston Ship Channel, a primary port of call in the Gulf Coast industrial nexus that supplies much of the world’s fuel, chemicals and plastics. The town of 32,000 residents styles itself the state’s birthplace because it was the site of the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto that won Texas independence from Mexico.

Attention also turned Tuesday to a 4-feet-high concrete wall lining the south side of Intercontinental’s property, which firefighters were watching to ensure it isn’t breached by foam, water and other runoff. The water, which was knee deep Tuesday, will become a threat if it reaches chest deep, according to Intercontinental executives.

The tank farm occupies 265 acres on the Houston Ship Channel east of the city. It can store more than 13 million barrels of chemicals, petroleum, fuel oil and gases. It serves marine, train and trucking transport with five tanker berths and its own rail spur. Intercontinental is owned by Japan’s Mitsui & Co. A Tokyo-based spokeswoman said Wednesday that the company is “watching the situation closely.”

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