Federal Investigation Reveals Preventable Nature of 2019 Houston Chemical Fire

Houston, Texas – A thorough investigation conducted by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has determined that the massive chemical fire that engulfed the Intercontinental Terminals Co. (ITC) facility in 2019 could have been averted if proper safety procedures had been in place. The findings, released on Thursday, shed light on critical deficiencies at the chemical storage facility and the lack of regulatory oversight that contributed to the incident.

The investigation highlighted several key shortcomings at the facility, including the absence of a flammable-gas detection system in tank 80-8, where the fire originated. Additionally, emergency isolation valves, crucial for containing hazardous chemicals during system failures, were not installed. These safety measures, recommended by regulatory bodies, were not mandatory due to gaps in existing regulations.

ITC, responsible for the storage and distribution of hazardous chemicals, gasses, and petroleum products for numerous chemical plants and refineries along the Houston Ship Channel, was not subject to certain safety regulations enforced by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The investigation stressed the need for ITC to implement additional safety measures, such as the installation of sensors to detect pump malfunctions and gas detection systems to promptly alert personnel of potential hazards.

While the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board does not have the authority to issue citations or fines, it strongly recommends that ITC take immediate action to enhance safety protocols. The board’s chair, Steve Owens, emphasized the preventable nature of the incident, which resulted in extensive property damage, potential community risks, and significant environmental impact, amounting to over $150 million in losses.

Prior to the 2019 fire, both federal and state regulators had documented recurring issues at ITC’s tank farm along the Houston Ship Channel. However, regulatory efforts to address these concerns were insufficient, as revealed by an investigation conducted by The Texas Tribune and Public Health Watch. The fire emitted hazardous chemicals, including the carcinogen benzene, into the air, leading to multiple shelter-in-place advisories in Deer Park. The pollutants also contaminated the nearby Ship Channel, resulting in the loss of wildlife.

In response to the investigation’s findings, an ITC spokesperson stated that the company is reviewing the report and collaborating with regulatory agencies to address the incident. Acknowledging the need for improvements, ITC has already implemented various safety upgrades, with ongoing efforts to further enhance safety and emergency response protocols.

The design of the chemical tank farm itself posed challenges for emergency responders during the fire. Factors such as inadequate spacing between tanks and the positioning of controls for pumps and drainage systems impeded their ability to contain and extinguish the blaze effectively.

The aftermath of the fire revealed a significant health concern, as benzene emissions reached hazardous levels in Deer Park weeks after the fire had been extinguished. Residents were not promptly informed of this invisible danger, according to the investigation conducted by The Texas Tribune and Public Health Watch.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan newsroom that provides Texans with unbiased coverage of state politics and policy. To learn more, visit texastribune.org.

The 2019 Houston chemical fire serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of stringent safety measures and effective regulatory oversight in preventing such catastrophic incidents. By implementing the recommendations outlined in the investigation report, the industry can take crucial steps towards safeguarding communities, the environment, and workers in the chemical sector.

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