• Bloomberg


Now that the four-day fire is out at a Houston-area chemical storage complex, the real danger has emerged.

Cancer-causing benzene is wafting across the eastern suburbs of the fourth-largest U.S. city, shutting roads, schools and industrial plants, and disrupting everyday life. A major oil refinery in the heart of North America’s most important fuel-producing region told workers to stay home and the cities of Deer Park and Galena Park told everyone to shut their windows and stay inside. The Texas National Guard deployed about 20 troops to assist with air monitoring, Maj. Joshua Amstutz said in an email.

Toxic fumes detected hours before dawn have panicked Houstonians normally accustomed to orange flares from the warren of refinery and chemical plant smokestacks that stretch to the eastern horizon. Even when the chemical fire erupted Sunday and sent a black anvil of smoke a mile above the city, many residents were nonchalant.

But with the fire at Intercontinental Terminals Co.’s storage complex extinguished, the situation is actually more treacherous because the pools of naphtha and other crude-oil byproducts at the site are no longer burning off — and are free to evaporate at ground level.

“It’s making the dangers worse for the communities near the site,” said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “The fires that had been burning had been burning off many of these air toxins and wafting them into a plume higher into the sky, where it was able to spread and disperse into broader regions.”

Police barricaded roads in Deer Park, 18 miles (29 km) east of downtown Houston, after a brief overnight flare-up at Intercontinental’s facility, where fire crews continue to douse several charred storage tanks with water and foam to cool the smoldering remnants.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC told workers at its nearby 275,000 barrel-a-day Deer Park refinery to stay at home or remain inside if they’ve already arrived at work. The refinery’s operations are normal, said Ray Fisher, a Shell spokesman.

“This is a real risk to human health, not theoretical,” said Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Benzene is a known carcinogen, and no amount is safe to breathe. We urge everyone, especially pregnant women, to be vigilant.”

The benzene levels detected “are below those that represent an immediate risk,” Intercontinental said in a statement. The company notified “surrounding municipalities and out of an abundance of caution Deer Park Emergency Operations Center has called for shelter in place precautions immediately for all of Deer Park.”

Before the fire, Intercontinental’s tank farm could hold as much as 13 million barrels of oil products and chemicals along the Houston Ship Channel. The black smoke plume that towered over Houston posed no risk to residents, local official said.

When ignited, benzene “just burns into carbon dioxide and water, just like anything else,” said Dr. Stephen Harding, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Once you’ve controlled the fire, you’ve now got damaged tanks containing the benzene which may be leaching into the air, now that it’s no longer being burned off.”

Part of State Highway 225, which many workers use to get to work at nearby refineries and terminals, has been shut down. The highway closure affects an 8-mile stretch through the heart of refining and chemical country, snarling traffic all over the east side of Houston.

Workers at LyondellBasell Industries NV’s Houston refinery continue to operate the facility, according to Kimberly Windon, a company spokeswoman. Petroleo Brasilerio SA didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the status of its refinery in the suburb of Pasadena.

“We know this is concerning, especially to residents in the area of the shelter in place,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in a statement. “We are continuing to monitor to verify if this is a short-term, one time exposure or a longer exposure. At the level of benzene we are seeing now for the current duration it should not cause symptoms even in the area impacted.”

The Deer Park Independent School District, La Porte ISD and Galena Park ISD have canceled school for Thursday.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.