Houston fire still burning, brought under some control

By late on Tuesday March 19th firefighters had succeeded in containing a serious blaze at a Mitsui & Co petrochemical storage site outside of Houston, which had been releasing acrid smoke since an initial tank caught fire on Sunday March 17th.

The blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) in Deer Park, Texas, had been reduced to four burning tanks from eight, a Harris County official said, after additional equipment and firefighters trained in handling tank fires arrived earlier on Tuesday.

The fire began on Sunday when a leaking tank containing naphtha, a fuel used in the production of gasoline, ignited. Flames spread quickly to other tanks, ITC said.

Seven tanks containing naphtha and xylene were burning by Monday, ITC officials said. Later that day a tank containing Toluene also caught fire.

By Tuesday morning the fire had ignited 12 of 15 tanks, each of which held up to 80,000 barrels of volatile liquid fuels. This made the fire difficult to extinguish. A leak from the naphtha storage tank ignited and flames spread to nearby tanks overnight Sunday/Monday, ITC reported to the Texas regulator.

On Tuesday morning the company blamed a failure of two water pumps for the fire’s expansion to more tanks, but by the afternoon said there were no pump failures.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said on Tuesday that the blaze might have to burn itself out. “I can’t tell you how long it will take to burn out,” said Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen at a morning briefing. “I’m not going to give you a timetable.”

ITC spokesman Dale Samuelsen said that some of the water and chemicals had washed into the adjacent Houston Ship Channel, which links the Gulf of Mexico to , the busiest petrochemical port in the US.

On Tuesday, ITC added a 15-person crew from US Fire Pump, which has experience battling tank-farm fires as well as additional high-pressure pumps and suppressant foam. Samuelsen said that “we have been up to this point in defensive mode. Because of the expertise these guys bring, the expectation is we’ll be able to go into offensive mode.”

Samuelsen said the burning tanks were within a six-foot tall earthen berm that is collecting water and chemicals. Firefighters are pumping 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of water and foam a minute onto the tanks.

No injuries were reported from the fire, but nearby residents were encouraged to remain indoors.

ITC said that the risk of an explosion was “minimal”, and that it was attempting to drain naphtha from one of the burning tanks.

The burning tanks are surrounded by other storage tanks within a spill containment dike. Firefighters used a foam fire retardant on nearby tanks to try to limit the fire from spreading.

Ships continued to cross the 50-mile-long channel, which is part of the Port of Houston, linking refineries and chemical plants in Houston and Texas City to the Gulf of Mexico.

JJ Plunkett, port agent at the Houston Pilots, said that “there has been no effect on vessel traffic other than at the two terminals”. Ship access to docks at the ITC and Vopak terminals was restricted by the U.S. Coast Guard, he said.

Air emissions tests detected the presence of a volatile organic compound six miles away from the facility. Levels were below those considered hazardous, ITC said.