Houston Ship Channel Remains Closed as Plume Leaches Benzene

By Joe Carroll and Rachel Adams-Heard | March 25, 2019

Some vessels will be allowed to enter a tributary to the Houston Ship Channel this morning but more than 60 ships remain stranded by the closure of the main waterway as a result of a cloud of cancer-causing benzene from an onshore tank fire.

The San Jacinto River tributary will be opened intermittently for some tug and barge traffic, Jay Schroeder, a Coast Guard spokesman, said on Monday. The main channel won’t reopen until the U.S. Coast Guard verifies the benzene has dissipated and oily runoff from the region’s worst chemical disaster in 14 years poses no threat to vessels or their crews.

Oil refiners, chemical manufacturers and grain exporters in Houston’s eastern suburbs have been cut off from Gulf of Mexico shipping as the unfolding Intercontinental Terminals Co. calamity enters its second week.

ITC achieved a significant milestone Sunday in emptying more than half a million gallons of toxic liquid from an onshore tank wrecked in the four-day blaze that erupted March 17 and sent a mile-high plume of black smoke skyward.

The Coast Guard plans to move a test vessel through the channel’s 2-mile-long no-go zone to determine whether ship traffic can resume without disrupting efforts to skim gasoline ingredients that spilled into the waterway, Lieutenant Commander Jason Toczko said on Sunday. He declined to estimate when the channel will reopen or specify when the test vessel will launch.

The channel, which isn’t a source of drinking water for Houston or its suburbs, connects the region’s dense warren of refineries, chemical processors and fertilizer warehouses to the rest of the world via Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Dozens of major companies rely on the waterway to receive crude oil and other raw materials, and to send out finished products such as fuel and livestock feed.

LyondellBasell Industries N.V.’s Channelview and Bayport chemical facilities are experiencing constrained barge and vessel logistics because of the closure but are operating, spokesman Chevalier Gray said in an email. The company is evaluating the event’s effect on production.

ITC crews finally drained about 13,000 barrels (546,000 gallons) of a benzene-laced refining byproduct called pygas from a charred tank after two earlier unsuccessful attempts, Brent Weber, the company’s incident commander, said during a media briefing Sunday.

Tank 80-7

ITC said Monday in a statement it’s still pumping out the contents of 80-7 and one other tank, and is preparing to do the same with two others.

Clearing the tank — numbered 80-7 on the facility map — would be a significant achievement for ITC because it allows crews access to other damaged tanks still holding dangerous chemicals they need to drain to eliminate the danger of new fires. A 2-foot (0.6-meter) deep pool of chemicals on the ground around the damaged tanks was reduced to 2 inches by Sunday morning.

Benzene levels in the air over suburban Deer Park and neighboring communities remained below harmful levels, said Adam Adams of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Trust ‘Not There’

That was a far cry from late last week, when readings of the pollutant linked to leukemia and other forms of cancer shut entire towns, triggered panic and sent 1,000 people to a pop-up medical clinic.

Residents remain on edge, wondering what’s next and when normal life will return. For many Houstonians, it’s the worst industrial disaster since the 2005 explosion at BP Plc’s Texas City refinery that killed 15.

“There’s more tanks in there. Is it going to reignite? It’s very uncertain,” said Mercy Reyna, 50, who’s been suffering from headaches, eye discomfort and chest tightness. “The trust is not there. We feel like we’re not being told the truth of what’s going on.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit accusing ITC of violating clean-air laws. Meanwhile, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it will be investigating the disaster.

Siphoning Gasoline

Dan Lowe, 52, sought treatment for eye and throat irritation. After ruling out strep throat and influenza, his doctor ordered blood tests to check for signs of benzene exposure. Lowe, who passed through Deer Park several times last week while driving for Uber, is awaiting the results.

“We used to siphon gasoline as teenagers and it felt like that,” he said of the pain in his throat. “It was stupid, but you don’t forget that taste.”

County officials said they have no plans for now to stand up an ad-hoc medical clinic that was open for three days in Deer Park. Anyone with symptoms was urged to contact their doctor or call 911.

“I’ve been here most of my adult life, and this is the scariest I’ve seen it.”

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