Report: ITC did not have emergency shutoff valve or alarm before massive blaze

A plume of smoke rises from a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company Monday, March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas. The large fire at a Houston-area petrochemicals terminal will likely burn for another two days, authorities said Monday, noting that air quality around the facility was testing within normal guidelines. (AP Photo: David J. Phillip, STF / Associated Press

Thousands of gallons of a highly flammable hazardous chemical spilled for nearly 30 minutes before catching fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm in Deer Park, but the facility did not have a remote emergency shutoff valve nor an alarm to alert workers, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Released Wednesday, the federal agency’s preliminary report is the first to provide a glimpse of what happened inside the chemical storage facility since a March 17 blaze sent a plume of black smoke into the skies that could be seen from 30 miles away, forced a three-day shutdown of the Houston Ship Channel and created 20 million gallons of waste.

While the exact cause of the ITC fire remains unknown, Chemical Safety Board investigators say there likely was a mechanical problem in a pump circulation system that transferred butane to a tank containing naphtha, a flammable liquid typically used as a feedstock for the production of gasoline.

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents.

An ITC spokesperson on Wednesday said company officials have been cooperating with “CSB and other federal, state and local regulatory authorities in their respective investigation,” and in identifying “potential causes and take appropriate steps to ensure safe operation.”

The ITC fire was one of three chemical fires in as many weeks in the Houston area. Multiple government agencies from all three levels of government are investigating the incident, which did not result in any deaths or injuries. The state and Harris County are suing ITC for violating the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, among other regulations. The Harris County District Attorney’s office also hit the company with five misdemeanor counts of water pollution.

As details of the incident come out through initial investigative reports and citations, at least one area expert said an accident at the tank storage facility was all but inevitable.

“ITC failed to adhere to minimum safety standards,” said Mike Saywer, an area industrial process safety expert with Apex Safety Consultants, LLC. “You cannot continue to operate in that negligent manner without an incident occurring. It’s just a matter of time.”

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

State releases final reports on Imelda-related air pollution

The ExxonMobile Baytown Refinery, photographed on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, in Baytown. Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

While the remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda contributed to the release of less overall air pollution than initially estimated, Harris County saw some increases in emissions, including of cancer-causing benzene, state reports show.

Overall, industrial businesses released about 81,000 pounds of pollutants, according to final reports submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — down from early estimates of nearly 95,000 pounds.

Initially, about a dozen facilities reported unauthorized releases from Sept. 18 through 21, triggered by electrical outages, the failure of floating roof tanks and equipment malfunctions caused by flooding from the storm, which brought more than 40 inches of rain in 72 hours in some parts of southeast Texas. Together, these companies concentrated in Harris, Jefferson and Brazoria counties reported releasing toxins, including cancer-causing 1,3 butadiene, benzene and ethylene oxide.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

TCEQ invests more than $1.5 million to improve air-pollution monitoring

Flames and smoke rise after a fire started at an Exxon Mobil facility, Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in Baytown, Texas (Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP)

The state’s environmental agency is investing more than $1.5 million to improve real-time air monitoring following Hurricane Harvey and several chemical fires in the Houston area.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality plans to equip up to three vans with real-time, mobile air monitoring technology and add three fixed air-monitoring stations, in addition to 15 handheld monitors the agency already bought. About two-thirds of the money was included in the most recent state budget, with the remainder coming from savings in the environmental agency’s 2019 budget.

“This new equipment will expand TCEQ’s ability to rapidly assess air quality, particularly around petrochemical facilities, but it will also help with daily monitoring of ambient conditions, including the Houston Ship Channel area,” Toby Baker, the agency’s executive director, said in a news release.

“We want to get better at responding to natural disasters and emergency response events by upgrading our real-time monitoring capabilities so local officials are able to make the best possible decisions to protect public health,” he added.

TCEQ has come under scrutiny in the past due to limited air-monitoring capability that can provide communities and local governments real-time data, especially during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and more recently, after the Houston area experienced three chemical fires in as many weeks.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

Hopes rise that proposed solar farm will transform former Sunnyside landfill site

Efrem Jernigan shakes off the dirt from a plant in need of some extra care for his hydroponic garden in the Sunnyside neighborhood in Houston on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. The project was selected as part of an initiative called Reinventing Cities, which recognizes low-carbon solutions in cities around the world. The project still needs to find. Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

What was once the site of Houston’s largest incinerator — and a place where people would dump old appliances and dead animals — could soon become the state’s largest urban solar farm and a food source for a community that has long been underserved.

Call it atonement through development.

The massive Sunnyside landfill, which was capped decades ago and covers an area that’s the size of more than 200 football fields, is now covered by hundreds of trees, overgrown shrubs and swarms of mosquitoes.

Now a team of private companies, architects, neighborhood groups and city officials is pursuing a plan to transform the site into thousands of solar panels, and an agricultural hub and education center built out of containers.

The latest push follows failed efforts over the years to turn the land — a short drive from downtown Houston — into, among others things, a golf course and an office complex.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.