A massive petrochemical fire at ITC in Deer Park, Houston on March 18th Photo: David J. Phillip/AP

Last week after a chemical explosion in Deer Park, Texas sent a plume of black smoke into the air, officials assured residents that the city had things under control. Over the weekend, however, a shelter-in-place order was issued for Deer Park residents due to concerns about air pollution from the massive fire. Making matters worse, a containment wall broke Friday, sparking another fire and sending chemical waste into waterways that lead to the closing of the Houston Ship Channel. In an effort to get the full story, the Environmental Defense Fund’s contractor detected high levels of the carcinogen benzene near the fire-damaged chemical storage complex that caught on fire, indicating the potential exposure to the pollutant spanned several days. Many residents are feeling confused and mistrustful after conflicting reports and efforts by city officials failed to keep them safe and 1,000 locals have sought treatment for symptoms such as nausea, headaches, and respiratory problems. 

As CNN reported, the Houston Ship Channel remained closed Monday because of oil and pollutants that leaked into the waterway during last week’s chemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, Texas, a Coast Guard official told reporters. But officials say they are making progress in their efforts to open the waterway, as well as to empty and secure tanks at the ITC facility and to monitor air quality for hazardous material. ” Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton said of the cleanup effort that “I’m very, very optimistic in regards to the progress that’s being made, I stand here today and tell you in assurance that safety to the public is priority number one.”

While Deer Park students returned to school Monday many in the community are still very much on edge. Steven Michels, a Deer Park resident said that his community felt as if  “We were held hostage in our own homes. It’s just been horrendous.” Another resident, Brian Williams who lives 10 miles from the Intercontinental Terminals Company facility that caught on fire lamented at the extent of the pollution by saying that “I have a garden in my backyard. I’m about to take it up. I’m not going to eat anything out of it anymore.”

As an editorial for the Dallas Morning Edition expressed: “Nobody wants to live this way, and we urge regulators to investigate the causes of these fires and ways to prevent such dangers. Attorney General Ken Paxton filed suit against ITC late Friday to force compliance with clean air laws, and we hope he is successful. But we may find that the fires were accidents. And the history of the petrochemical industry tells us that accidents, fires and explosions sometimes come with the territory. As the Texas petrochemical industry continues rapid expansion, bringing investment and coveted blue collar jobs, we must consider how much risk we are willing to live with.

Why This Matters: As we wrote previously, Texas state regulators failed to penalize 97% of all illegal air pollution releases thus making evident how friendly the regulatory environment has been to industry. The oil. gas, and petrochemicals industries account for hundreds of thousands of jobs and they have continued to expand in recent years but the question is, at what cost? Extracting oil, refining it and then deriving petrochemicals takes a heavy toll on people and planet. Additionally, many of the petrochemicals made in Texas are essential ingredients in our lives and this underscores how reliant we have been on cheap and abundant fossil fuels. As we work toward a renewable energy future we’re also going to have to redesign these basic chemical building blocks of our economy. 

 

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