HOUSTON — Businesses and residents expressed concern Monday about the environmental and economic fallout from a fire at a Houston-area petrochemical storage farm that sent huge plumes into the air for days and prompted the partial closure of one of the busiest commercial waterways in the U.S.
Officials said it could be several more days before a section of the Houston Ship Channel reopens. Investigators with Harris County, which includes Houston, said they have delivered a subpoena to Intercontinental Terminals Company — the firm that owns the facility — to preserve any evidence regarding the cause of the blaze. Students returned to class after the fire prompted school closures near the facility.
Here’s a look at what has happened and what to expect:
THE FIRE AND RESPONSE
A massive fire started March 17 at the ITC plant in the suburb of Deer Park, southeast of Houston. It left several petrochemical tanks damaged or destroyed and thrust plumes of black smoke into the air and burned on and off for days.
It’s unclear how the blaze began.
On Thursday, residents were warned to stay inside for their own safety because of high levels of benzene in the air. The chemical evaporates quickly and can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and headaches, with worse symptoms at higher levels of exposure.
Some of ITC’s tanks leaked oil products and a containment area was breached Friday, leading to the mixture reaching the ship channel, said company spokesman Brent Weber.
Authorities shut down part of the ship channel Friday to traffic to try and continue the cleanup and contain the spill.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Kevin Oditt said Monday it could be several more days before that part of the channel reopens.
“The priorities remain ensuring the safety of our on-scene responders as well as mitigating any impact to the waterway or the environment and reopening the Houston Ship Channel,” Oditt said.
The San Jacinto River, a waterway leading into the ship channel and located north of ITC’s facility, was reopened to barge and tow traffic but only for about three hours on Monday.
Oditt said officials have performed several test runs with ships, letting them pass through the affected area to see if they don’t interfere with the cleanup and don’t get contaminated. Such test runs will help the Coast Guard determine when the channel can be fully opened.
EFFECTS ON COMMERCE
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Source:: Deseret News – U.S. & World News