DEER PARK, Texas - The shelter-in-place orders issued for two east Harris County towns Thursday after benzene was detected at a Deer Park chemical facility that caught fire over the weekend have been lifted.
Officials at Intercontinental Terminals Co., which operates the tank farm near Independence Parkway and Tidal Road, said "action levels of benzene" were detected about 3 a.m. at the site of the fire.
Alice Richardson, spokeswoman for the company, said that the release happened when foam covering the tank shifted because of winds.
About 5 a.m., a shelter-in-place was expanded to cover the entire city of Deer Park. That order was lifted at about 11:50 a.m.
Deer Park city officials released the following statement about the decision:
"After receiving consistent air quality readings below the actionable limit, the City of Deer Park is officially lifting its Shelter-in-Place order as of 11:40 a.m. Emergency Services Director Robert Hemminger said the sustained period of improved readings combined with the confirmation of the public health official - Dr. Umair Shah, Executive Director of Harris County Public Health - have afforded the City the ability to lift the Shelter in Place with confidence.
“According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Harris County HAZMAT teams and a private contractor on-site at Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) Deer Park site, air quality readings are improving, and over the last few hours, they have been significantly reduced,” Hemminger said. “This information, combined with the assurance of Harris County Public Health, allows us to meet our internal criteria necessary to lift our Shelter-in-Place.
"As of this update, State Highway 225 will also be re-opened from Beltway 8 to Highway 146. City crews will be deployed to remove all street barricades placed this morning and re-open the roadways.
Even after the Shelter-in-Place is lifted, the entities monitoring air quality in the area will continue to do so until the conclusion of the incident. The City will provide updates as they become available.
All City of Deer Park facilities will re-open to the public at 1 p.m. Deer Park Municipal Court customers who were scheduled for court today are encouraged to call 281-478-7238 to reschedule their appearances."
Officials with the EPA said that they believed the cancer-causing benzene escaped from one tank. With no roof, only a layer of foam separated the 40,000 barrels of pygas, which contains benzene from the atmosphere.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the mayor of Galena Park also ordered a shelter-in-place out of an abundance of caution, but elevated levels of benzene have not been detected. That order was lifted about 1:30 p.m.
Richardson said that crews are working to maintain the foam blanket over the tank to prevent the chemical from escaping. She said that crews are also trying to transfer some of the material left in the tank so that the foam blanket can be protected from the wind.
"We will make this right," Richardson said as she held back tears.
Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist for Harris County, said light winds and the fact that benzene is heavier than air helped keep the chemical contained to an area immediately around the site.
"Outside of that immediate area, we are not seeing any elevated readings right now," Hidalgo said. "We are, in fact, starting to see a little bit of a downward trend in our samples."
Air quality monitoring is being conducted not only around the site but also in areas outside the perimeter. All of the data is available at ReadyHarris.org/deerparkfire.
Officials urged residents with questions about their symptoms to contact the Ask-A-Nurse hotline at 713-634-1110 which is open until 8:30 p.m.
There are no concerns about drinking water at this time, officials said.
The EPA issued this statement:
"EPA has conducted water sampling 3/20 and 3/21. We do not yet have results; we hope to have them tomorrow. I would like to share a link with you with our public ASPECT reports and sampling maps."
Hidalgo said that authorities are working with federal, state and local agencies to monitor the situation. Initially, she said that a team from the Texas National Guard was assisting with chemical surveillance, but officials later said that is not the case.
The following school districts are closed Thursday:
La Porte ISD
Galena Park ISD
Deer Park ISD
San Jacinto College
KIPP - Northeast Campus - KIPP Legacy, KIPP Polaris, KIPP Voyage, KIPP Northeast College Prep
East End Campus - KIPP Intrepid, KIPP Explore
South East Campus - KIPP Climb, KIPP Prime
Clear Creek ISD - Clear Horizons Early College High School
BakerRipley Pasadena Campus
Family Christian Academy
St. Pius V Catholic School in Pasadena
Officials at the Houston Independent School District said that both indoor and outdoor air quality testing is being conducted at campuses on the east side of the district. Nurses will also be deployed to check on students and staff.
City of Pasadena workers who live in Deer Park have been told to not report to work.
People who have business at the Deer Park Municipal Court will be rescheduled. Anyone with questions about their case can call 281-478-7238 after 1 p.m.
All roads that were closed in Deer Park as a result of the shelter-in-place order have been reopened, officials said.
Go to Click2Houston.com/traffic to see real-time traffic conditions in the area.
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