Mutual aid agreements, early monitoring crucial to Deer Park response

Preplanning fire department involvement in a chemical industry fire, and keeping the public informed helps mutual aid partners contain a chemical fire

In Harris County, Texas, just outside the outer beltway, Deer Park, a small city of 35,000, has essentially become an extension of Houston – the largest city in the southern United States and the fourth largest U.S. city overall. The Houston shipping channel is one of the busiest U.S. ports, with a significant volume of inland barges carrying large quantities of materials including, among other things, a plethora of hazardous, volatile and highly flammable materials.

The Intercontinental Terminal Company (ITC) has the capacity to store 13,058,136 barrels, which it receives and distributes by vessel, barge, rail car, tank truck and pipeline system connections. While there are a myriad of environmental rules, regulations and laws impacting this and similar facilities, a 2016 Houston Chronicle report indicated there is a major chemical incident once every 6 weeks in the Houston area.

What happened: At about 10:30 a.m., March 17, 2019, as reported by ITC plant officials, there was “a release of product near the Naphtha tank, that found an ignition source.” A large black plume quickly raised over the city, and a local shelter-in-place order was issued quickly. A city-wide shelter-in-place was ordered by 1:25 p.m. It would take 11 hours (9:23 pm) for plant officials to confirm two tanks were on fire. By 1:30 a.m., the fire was confirmed to have spread to seven tanks, with many more exposed. Before the fire was declared out for the first time, 65 hours later, at 3:00 a.m. Wednesday, March 20, 11 tanks would become involved.

Like dominos, the cascading effects of the initial incident continue to unfold. Friday afternoon, when boil-overs and a portion of the containment dyke failed, the foam blanket was disrupted, allowing product and foam to flow into the ditches and water adjacent to the channel. This resulted in the temporary closure of portions of the shipping channel.

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