HOUSTON (AP) — Potentially hazardous chemicals spilled Friday from a Texas plant where crews were still trying to clean up after a dayslong fire, forcing the closure of the Houston Ship Channel and prolonging the fears of residents who have worried about their health for almost a week.
Intercontinental Terminals Company said a breach occurred before 12:30 p.m. of a containment dike near a damaged tank that crews were trying to drain of flammable liquids, including benzene. An estimated 20,000 barrels of liquid were in the tank, which was one of several to catch fire.
Extinguished Wednesday, the blaze caused a giant plume of black smoke that billowed over much of Houston.
Dale Samuelsen, a company spokesman, said ITC didn’t immediately know what spilled in the breach. But among the chemicals in the plant were benzene, which evaporates quickly and can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and headaches, with worse symptoms at higher levels of exposure.
The company’s plant is next to the Houston Ship Channel, a key artery between the Port of Houston and Galveston Bay that’s connected to many large refineries and industrial sites.
The liquids that entered the ship channel are known to include chemicals, firefighting foam, and soot from the fire, said Coast Guard spokesman Kelly Parker. The Coast Guard closed the ship channel in an area around the plant to prevent the spread of the liquids, Parker said.
Samuelsen said the company asked its neighbors, including other industrial sites and the nearby San Jacinto Texas State Historic Site, to shelter in place.
The tanks on site contain components of gasoline and materials used in nail polish remover, glues and paint thinner.
Authorities had not asked residents in surrounding Deer Park to shelter in place early Friday afternoon. People living near the plant in Deer Park were told Thursday to remain indoors after air monitors detected elevated levels of benzene. The order was lifted later Thursday.
Adam Adams of the Environmental Protection Agency said authorities believe the other tanks that burned on site were stable.
Area schools canceled classes as testing Thursday indicated higher-than-normal levels of benzene in the air.
Adams said air tests by the EPA and the company had not shown any positive results for high levels of benzene Friday. One positive test after 4 a.m. from a sensor operated by Harris County was verified to be a false alarm, a county spokeswoman said.