A massive fire that engulfed a petrochemical storage facility outside Houston over the weekend is still burning, sending large plumes of smoke into the air. But officials say there is no immediate threat to public health as firefighters struggle to stop the blaze from growing.
The fire began Sunday at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. facility in Deer Park, Texas, about 15 miles outside of Houston. As of Tuesday, eight tanks containing a variety of chemicals related to the energy industry have caught fire, sending a tower of smoke more than 4,000 feet into the air. But any harmful chemicals in the air are high enough that they aren’t impacting human health, officials said.
“It’s understandable why people would be scared,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during a press conference, per The Washington Post. “We’re sharing information with the public so that everybody knows what we know, what we’re doing and where we’re headed.”
The storage tanks that are on fire were holding gasoline, xylene, pyrolysis gasoline and naptha, among other chemicals. Fire crews have pumped more than 137,000 gallons of foam over the flames, but they were unable to say when it might be out, according to The Associated Press.
The county has been posting updated air quality results online, which show a small risk to the general population and a moderate risk to those with sensitivities to air quality, including children, the elderly and anyone with a respiratory issue. The Houston Chronicle notes that weather patterns have kept chemicals above the ground, but fog predicted for Wednesday morning could pull some of the particles toward land.
“Based on current air monitoring reports, there continues to be a low risk to the community because the smoke is several thousand feet above the ground,” the county said earlier Tuesday. “However, since this is an evolving situation, Harris County Public Health recommends that any individuals who feel they are experiencing symptoms should contact their healthcare provider.”
Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, moved to minimize fears of the smoke plume, which some reports say could be seen more than 30 miles away.
“I know the cloud of dark smoke seems ominous as it spreads over parts of the city of Houston, but we want to assure that the air quality is being monitored around the clock,” Turner said at a news briefing, according to the Chronicle.
Despite the assurances, at least six school districts in the area cancelled classes for Wednesday, worried that a change in weather could pose health concerns.
A spokeswoman for International Terminals said the company was “working our hardest to get this current incident under control,” saying the facility was “very sorry.”
“This isn’t an event we wanted,” the spokeswoman, Alice Richardson, said at a news conference.
The Chronicle notes that the ITC facility had a history of violations of clean air and water rules since 2009, including a bevy of fines that have totaled more than $65,000. The storage company was found to have violated the Clean Water Act in nine of the last 12 quarters, according to the outlet’s investigation of Environmental Protection Agency data.
Texas has a fraught history with environmental regulation and has moved to tighten chemical disclosure laws in recent years, saying the efforts were meant to combat terrorism. The Obama administration tried to pass federal chemical safety laws that would give emergency responders and the EPA more oversight over chemical facilities, but the industry has routinely fought such proposals, according to The New York Times.
Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed the proposal, called the Chemical Disaster Rule, but a federal appeals court forced it to go into effect in August.