Petrochemical Facility Fire Blamed on Equipment Failure

A report by local and federal investigators said the failure occurred within equipment that holds an electric motor and pump next to the storage tank.

In this March 18, 2019, file photo, firefighters battle a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, Texas.
In this March 18, 2019, file photo, firefighters battle a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, Texas.
Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP, File

HOUSTON (AP) — A fire at a Houston-area petrochemical storage facility that burned for days in March was accidental and caused by equipment failure at a storage tank, according to a report released Friday by local and federal investigators.

The report by the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concluded the failure took place within a piece of equipment that holds an electric motor and a pump next to the storage tank.

Forensic testing would need to be done to determine the cause of the equipment failure, the report said

“Foul play and malicious intent along with other unintentional causes were ruled out by investigators,” according to the more than 200-page report.

The blaze, which began March 17 in Deer Park, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Houston, sent waves of thick, black smoke thousands of feet into the air and forced the closure of roads, schools and a critical shipping channel. It caused no injuries but triggered air quality warnings.

“As expected, the Fire Marshal’s report confirms that this fire was accidental. ITC continues to work closely with all engaged regulatory and investigative agencies to better understand the circumstances leading up to the fire,” Intercontinental Terminals Company, which owns the storage facility, said in a statement Friday.

The facility was made up of large storage tanks that contained components of gasoline and materials used in nail polish remover, glues and paint thinner. The fire originated at one storage tank where butane and Naphtha are mixed.

According to the report by the fire marshal’s office and ATF, workers who were in the facility’s control room when the fire erupted weren’t aware of what was going on as monitoring screens didn’t indicate a problem.

Steve Mathias, an ITC employee, told investigators he was in the control room “watching five computer screens which indicated everything was normal and there were no alarms activating. He was alerted to the fire by means of the radio .... He looked at the control screen for (the storage tank) which was green and indicated that everything was in a normal operational mode.”

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which is also investigating the fire, said in October that employees didn't know the naphtha product was coming out of the tank and no alarms were activated because the "tank farm was not equipped with a fixed gas detection system.”

Employees interviewed for the report by the fire marshal’s office and ATF told investigators that a seal on the pump next to the storage tank had been replaced during a repair in December 2018 after noise had been reported coming from the pump.

“Our hope is that lessons are learned from these findings, and these types of incidents will be prevented in the future,” said Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen.

The safety board is still conducting its investigation, including determining what ignited the fire.

The Harris County District Attorney's Office filed water pollution charges in April against ITC, alleging the fire caused chemicals to flow into a nearby waterway. The case is still pending.

The ITC fire is one of several high-profile accidents at petrochemical facilities this year up and down the Texas Gulf Coast, which is home to the highest concentration of oil refineries in the nation. The most recent accident took place last month at the TPC Group plant in Port Neches, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of Houston.

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