ITC still working to empty chemicals from tanks week after fire

By Daniela Sternitzky-Di Napoli - Digital News Editor, Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

DEER PARK, Texas - It has been over a week since a fire broke out at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. in Deer Park, sending a plume of smoke over the city and causing havoc for area residents.

ITC officials gave an update on the incident Monday, eight days after the initial fire broke out.

Alice Richardson, ITC's public information officer, said the company had received about 1,600 calls for legal claim inquiries as of Friday. ITC has not filed for bankruptcy, Richardson said.

According to Brent Weber, ITC's incident commander, five tanks have been emptied and secured, and the company expects to have at least one more done by Monday afternoon.

VIDEO:  ITC gives update on condition, status of tanks

Weber said two tanks are still full. He said one tank has lube oil in it and there is no risk of emissions and the other is scheduled to start being emptied Monday night.

Adam Adams, with the Environmental Protection Agency, said the air is being continuously monitored and no hazardous gases that could prompt another shelter-in-place order have been detected.

Though the ship channel remains closed, the U.S. Coast Guard has reopened the San Jacinto River and limited traffic has started getting through the ship channel. 

The channel is expected to remain closed until the oil is cleaned out of the water. Only limited, daylight traffic will be able to get through, said Capt. Kevin Oditt. 

The fire started Sunday, March 17, and spread throughout the facility, engulfing nine of the 15 tanks in the area. It was put out around 2 a.m. Wednesday.

Nearly 12 hours later, the fire reignited, sending a fireball into the air. Crews were able to put the fire out quickly, but the incident was far from over. 

RELATED: Health worries linger after massive fire at ITC Deer Park facility

After the initial fire started, schools closed and residents were ordered to shelter in place. While the order was lifted and classes resumed Tuesday, the break was short-lived. 

On Thursday, after the fire had been out and crews had started pumping the chemicals out of the remaining tanks, benzene – a known carcinogen – was detected in the air, prompting more school closures and another shelter-in-place order.

RELATED: What you need to know about benzene

Though the shelter-in-place order was lifted, schools remained closed for the rest of the week. 

On Friday, just as ITC officials were starting to seem hopeful the situation was going in the right direction, the facility suffered a break in a dike wall near the incinerated tanks. 

Hours after the break, two tanks and chemical runoff in a ditch caught fire, sending yet another plume of smoke over the Deer Park area.

On Saturday, reports of several toxins found in the water near ITC prompted officials to close the ship channel.

RELATED: What's burning at the chemical plant in Deer Park?

The U.S. Coast Guard deployed a total of 8,500 feet of boom to try to trap as much of the chemical waste as possible, but some chemicals still made it into the ship channel’s waters.

On Sunday, the Coast Guard tripled the length of booms, totaling 27,000 feet, hoping to contain more of the toxins that had been released into the water.

Classes for nearby school districts resumed their normal schedule Monday, despite some parents' disagreement. 

“I think they probably should have got another day off or so, probably two," said Edgar Perez Lopez, a father of four living in Pasadena. "Who knows what’s out there?”

Officials with the Harris County Attorney's Office will ask commissioners for authorization to file litigation against ITC to try and recoup the money the county has spent dealing with the impact of the fire. Officials with the County Attorney's Office said they have not calculated a total amount.

If a lawsuit happens as planned, it will be the third time the county has sued ITC for issues relating to troubled operations.

The county attorney will further discuss the issue during the Commissioner's Court meeting on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, private Houston attorneys are also beginning to file suit against the company.

Attorney Benny Agosto Jr. said he represents 200 clients who claim to have been affected by the fire.

"Nausea, burning in the eyes, burning in the throat -- some folks may have runny ears, runny noses," Agosto said.

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