Shelter-in-place order lifted in Deer Park after benzene levels decline

Texas Tribune News

A thick layer of smoke from a fire burning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park hangs in the air above the downtown skyline of Houston, Texas, U.S., March 18, 2019.
A thick layer of smoke from a fire burning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park hangs in the air above the downtown skyline of Houston, Texas, U.S., March 18, 2019.
REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Tens of thousands of people east of Houston were told to stay indoors for hours Thursday after benzene and other volatile organic compounds were found in the air within the city limits of Deer Park.

The order came one day after a fire that broke out at a petrochemical storage facility there was extinguished. Residents in Deer Park and neighboring Galena Park were told to close their windows, turn off their air conditioning and stay off certain roads. But by noon, the shelter-in-place order had been lifted for Deer Park after air quality monitors reported “sustained period of improved readings.” It remained in place for Galena Park.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental regulatory agency, said in a news release Thursday morning that some areas of the city had benzene concentrations high enough to cause health concerns. TCEQ said that at the maximum levels detected, the benzene levels could cause headaches and nausea, but no long-term effects.

“Because the fires are no longer burning, vapor from remaining exposed chemicals can escape. The remaining product is being removed, and vapor suppression activities are continuing,” the release said.

The city issued the warning early Thursday morning, and officials advised residents to close any sources of outdoor air, according to a city emergency alert. The warning also advised residents to turn off air conditioning and heating systems and close fireplaces to keep chemicals from entering homes.

Deer Park has a population of over 33,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Galena Park has a population over over 11,000.

Some school districts in the area cancelled school for the day, including Galena Park Independent School District, according to a city emergency alert.

On Sunday morning, a fire broke out at a facility owned by Intercontinental Terminals Company. The fire spread through tanks that contained chemicals used in gasoline, and blazed for three days before being extinguished. The blaze caused a tall black plume to hang over Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, for days. But government officials insisted during the fire that the air remained safe to breathe.

No shelter order had been issued in Houston Thursday morning, and Houston ISD schools remained open. School officials emphasized that no benzene had been detected outside the shelter-in-place zone, though the district hired contractors to test air conditions at schools on the east side of the city “out of an abundance of caution.”

TCEQ said its staff would be extensively monitoring the air quality, and asked for additional air monitoring equipment from the Environmental Protection Agency, which will arrive and begin operations Thursday, according to the release.

The ITC facility where the fire occurred has been open since 1972. The TCEQ fined the company at least 10 times since 2002 for various pollution incidents.