Schools Still Closed Near Texas Chemical Plant Fire

A plume of smoke rises from a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company on March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

HOUSTON (CN) – Schools around a Houston-area petrochemical storage plant releasing hazardous levels of benzene fumes remain closed Friday, despite the lifting of a shelter-in-place order Thursday afternoon.

It’s been a week of whiplash for people who live near Intercontinental Terminals Company’s plant in the city of Deer Park, Texas, a blue-collar town, population 33,000, 21 miles east of Houston.

A fire erupted at the plant Sunday, raged for three days, damaged 11 storage tanks and was put out early Wednesday morning.

Thursday morning brought another crisis as elevated of levels of benzene were detected by air monitors near the plant, the city issued a shelter-in-place order, highways were closed and National Guard guards troops fanned out across the city to advise people to stay inside.

Weary residents exhaled Thursday afternoon when Deer Park officials lifted the shelter-in-place order, only to wake up to news Friday that a spike in benzene, 4.3 parts per million, had been detected around 5 a.m. by an air-quality gauge near the plant.

Federal guidelines say that is a hazardous level of benzene, a known carcinogen that is part of daily life. It’s blended into motor fuels and used to make detergents and pharmaceuticals. It’s even used to extract oil from seeds and nuts, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Under rules set by the U.S. Labor Department, employers are required to provide medical exams for workers exposed to benzene above an average of 0.5 ppm of benzene over 8 hours.

Intercontinental Terminals Company told local media the Friday morning benzene flare-up is “localized” so there is no need for another shelter-in-place warning.

But school administrators are not confident the crisis is over.

After closing its 15 schools Monday, Wednesday and Thursday due to the fire and benzene issues, Deer Park Independent School District told its 12,800 students Thursday afternoon to stay home Friday.

“Student safety is our highest priority, and we simply want to avoid a situation where another shelter in place might be called as children are arriving at or leaving school,” Superintendent Victor E. White Jr. said in a statement.

The EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said they have taken water samples to see if foam used to extinguish the fire has polluted bayous and the Houston Ship Channel, the Associated Press reported.

Environmental groups and residents have questioned if air-quality monitors are taking correct readings, and said statements from elected officials that the air is safe clash with what they are seeing on the ground.

Bryan Parras, a Sierra Club organizer in Houston, told the AP that some residents who live near the plant have suffered headaches, nausea and nose bleeds due to pollutants from the fire. 

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