Residents look at the plume of smoke rising from a March 17, 2019 fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) petrochemical storage site in Deer Park, Texas
Residents look on at the plume of smoke rising from a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) petrochemical storage site in Deer Park, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. (Scott Dalton / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The massive 2019 Intercontinental Terminals Co. fire in Deer Park that burned for three days and shut down part of the Houston Ship Channel could have been prevented if the company had proper safeguards in place, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said Thursday. 

The agency’s final investigative report, released late Thursday, also cited the plant’s design and gaps in federal environmental regulation for the blaze that sent thick smoke into the air and thousands of gallons of chemical runoff into nearby waterways.

The tank farm fire caused millions in property damage and prompted shelter-in-place orders for Deer Park, forced nearby schools and businesses to close, and left elevated levels of benzene in the air that led to the closure of the San Jacinto Battlefield Historic Site for more than a month.

“This was a very large and disruptive event. The fire burned for three days, caused over 150 million dollars in property damage at the facility, put the surrounding community potentially at risk, and significantly impacted the environment,” CSB Chairman Steve Owens said. “This disastrous event could have been prevented if proper safeguards had been in place at the facility.”

Attempts to reach an ITC spokesperson Thursday evening were unsuccessful, but the company issued a statement Friday, saying several instrumentation upgrades and safety enhancements at the terminal already have been implemented or are underway.

“ITC continues to assess the report and to work with all regulatory agencies in connection with their review of the incident,” the statement read.

According to CSB investigators, leaking butane-enriched naphtha accumulated in an above-ground storage tank for nearly 30 minutes before igniting. The fire quickly spread to the surrounding 14 tanks located in the same area. By this time, investigators said, ITC could not stop the fire. 

In its report, CSB highlighted several issues leading up to the blaze, including the lack of a detection and warning system to alert plant workers to a gas leak, and a lack of emergency valves to contain the leak. Additionally, investigators said the design of the tank farm allowed the fire to spread quickly. 

The report also noted the specific tank in which the gas ignited was exempt from regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Immediate impact 

A month after the fire, the Harris County District Attorney charged ITC with five misdemeanor counts of water pollution from the petrochemical runoff, fire-suppressing foam and the thick plume of smoke that hung over the Houston area for several days.

During attempts to extinguish the blaze, a breach in a containment wall allowed toxic chemicals, such as xylene and benzene, to drain into Tucker Bayou and the Houston Ship Channel.

Months later, researchers found trace amounts of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl – synthetic chemicals known as PFAS and used in firefighting foams – in the water. PFAS are linked with several illnesses, including certain cancers. 

Harris County also sued ITC over the pollution, setting In 2021 for $900,000. 

The blaze prompted officials to close the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site for six weeks due to the contaminants in the area. Levels of benzine, a known cancer-causing chemical, remained four times the state’s limit for short-term exposure four months after the fire.

What went wrong

In addition to the lack of a gas leak detection system, the CSB’s 100-page report noted that ITC did not have a proper maintenance procedure for the tank or a circulation pump connected to it. Without maintaining the system, tank equipment, such as the pump, are more susceptible to failure, the report said.. 

When the pump did eventually fail, on the morning of March 17, there was no warning system to alert the personnel to the leak, which remained undetected for 30 minutes before the gas ignited. 

Additionally, ITC did not have any remote emergency valve controls to mitigate the gas leak from a safe location. Other tanks on the farm also lacked emergency valve controls.

Investigators also cited the tank farm’s design, noting that additional spacing between the tanks and other design features could have slowed the fire down enough for firefighters to battle the blaze before it spread to the other tanks. The fire destroyed 15 80,000 gallon tanks and their contents.

After the fire, ITC stated that the company was exempt from certain regulations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The regulation would have required ITC to conduct a thorough risk analysis of the entire operating process, which according to OSHA, could have controlled the hazards that caused the incident, the report stated. 

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Elena Bruess covers the environment for the Houston Landing. She comes to Houston after two years at the San Antonio Express-News, where she covered the environment, climate and water. Elena previously...