Texas Files Suit Over Chemical Storage Plant Fire

Firefighters battle a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company Monday, March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – The state of Texas sued the owner of a Houston chemical storage plant Friday for air pollution caused by a fire which, fueled by petroleum products, burned for three days straight this week and left neighboring residents fearful for their health.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, filed the lawsuit against International Terminals Company, or ITC, in Travis County Court, seeking a large amount of civil penalties for air contaminant emissions.

Already weary from the fire that engulfed storage tanks at the plant 21 miles east of Houston, triggered two shelter-in-place directives and caused highway closures, residents’ nerves were further jangled Friday afternoon when another blaze broke out at the plant before firefighters smothered it with foam         

An ITC spokeswoman said on Friday it does not comment on pending litigation, and it is still investigating what started the three-day fire.

“We won’t have the results of that investigation for a while,” she said. 

This contradicts allegations in Texas’ lawsuit, which states: “According to ITC, the fire was caused by a leak in a pipe containing volatile naptha, which subsequently ignited.” Naptha is the main ingredient in kerosene.

Texas says the tanks contained petrochemicals used to make gasoline, plastics, nail-polish remover and paint thinner. As the chemicals burned, air monitors near the plant showed high levels of air pollution.

The state’s lawsuit is likely the first of many to come as people who live near the plant have reportedly suffered headaches, nausea and nose bleeds caused by pollutants from the fire. 

ITC is trying head off the litigation. It created a website and set up a hotline through which business owners and residents can make claims for income losses and medical bills.

In its lawsuit, Texas is demanding $50 to $25,000 in civil penalties for violations of the Texas Clean Air Act, Texas Water Code and Texas Health and Safety Code.

“Each air contaminant emitted, each separate emission point, and each day that such emissions occurred constitute separate violations,” the complaint states.

Elevated levels of benzene, a carcinogen, were detected by air monitors near the plant early Thursday morning, triggering a shelter-in-place advisory. National Guard troops were also called in Thursday to help monitor air quality.

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency 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.

ITC names safety, honesty, integrity, dedication and respect as its core values. But Paxton said the fires this week are part of a troubling record. “ITC has a history of environmental violations, and this latest incident is especially disturbing and frightening. No company can be allowed to disrupt lives and put public health and safety at risk,” he said in a statement.

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