Chemical Fires May Impact Communities Long After Flames Extinguished

On Sunday, March 17, firefighters were called to the site of a chemical fire that had broken out at a storage facility owned by Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, Texas. The fire, thought to be the result of a leaking manifold, took three days to put out. Although a dark plume of smoke continued to hang in the sky, the emergency seemed to have passed and the city breathed a sigh of relief.

But it turns out the fire was only the beginning. Four days later, Deer Park residents were warned that elevated levels of Benzene, a hydrocarbon found in petroleum, had been detected in the air and they were instructed to shelter in place. Residents in nearby Galena Park awoke to a strange voice being broadcast over emergency loudspeakers, delivering the same message. Benzene exposure can result in headaches, dizziness, and confusion. High levels of exposure can cause nausea, convulsions, and even death. In light of the warnings, schools were closed for the rest of the week and weekend activities were canceled.

By Friday, the cleanup had begun in earnest. But efforts were dealt a setback when the Houston Ship Channel had to be shut down after toxic runoff breached a containment wall. Hours later, the fire reignited, spreading to the chemicals released in the dike breach. At last report, the U.S. Coast Guard had been mobilized to help contain the runoff released in the breach.

That same day, the Texas Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit against ITC, citing violations of the Texas Clean Air Act, while the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said it was exploring other legal avenues.

At the same time, locals were left worrying about the long-term effects facing them and their families. And with good reason. As it turns out, Intercontinental Terminals Company has a history of violating environmental regulations. EPA records show that, in nine out of the last 12 quarters, ITC was cited for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The company also has been fined by the EPA and sued by Harris County for offenses related to the Texas Clean Water Act and Texas Clean Air Act, as well as the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act. As recently as 2017, they were fined more than $18,000 by the TCEQ for releasing cyanide into the San Jacinto River basin that exceeded by 10 times permitted amounts.

At a recent conference of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers in San Antonio industry executives bemoaned the fact that accidents like Deer Park were giving them a bad image. Even in a state such as Texas, where the oil industry is booming, the public is often distrustful of their activities and when something goes wrong what companies are willing to reveal.

The reasons for this are fairly simple. Companies like ITC aren’t like Applebee’s or Target. While the damage inflicted by the majority of workplace accidents is limited to a single person or a small group of individuals, dangerous chemicals being released into the water we drink and the air we breathe has the potential to harm hundreds, even thousands of people. Damage to the environment may have permanent effects and cost local economies millions of dollars in lost revenue.

All of this means that the liability these companies carry when something goes wrong is very large. An executive may look at an accident, the millions of dollars it may cost the company, and the potential lawsuits, and arrive at the conclusion that obfuscating is their best option. This is fallacy.

These individuals owe a commitment of safety and a promise to be honest and transparent when accidents happen, both to workers and the local community. When this isn’t sufficient incentive, they must be held legally and financially responsible. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes the only way to get the desired result.

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