Deer Park plant on fire at Intercontinental Terminals Co has history of environmental violations

Deer Park plant on fire at Intercontinental Terminals Co has history of environmental violations

Source: Houston Chronicle, March 19, 2019
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Before it was engulfed in flame, a Deer Park chemical facility had a long history of violating state and federal environmental rules.

Intercontinental Terminals Company’s (ITC) Deer Park facility violated clean air and clean water rules multiple times since 2009 and was cited for not following federal risk management regulations, records show. Federal, state and county regulators issued more than $65,000 in civil penalties to ITC during that time.

The company, which stores petrochemicals for companies including Chevron, Phillips 66 and Exxon Chemical Company, says it strives to comply with the law.

“We believe that our environment is what we’re handing down to our children,” ITC spokesperson Alice Richardson said Monday. “We make every effort to make sure we’re compliant, that we’re above the regulations.”

But ITC has had repeated air and water violations:

The company violated the federal Clean Water Act nine of the last 12 quarters, according to Environmental Protection Agency online data.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fined ITC $18,300 in July 2017 for releasing cyanide into the San Jacinto River basin. The amount released was more than 10 times the permitted levels. EPA documents and data show the company released more than three times the monthly limit for sulfide in 2016 and was over the limit for chlorine discharges in 2015.

Cyanide is a toxic chemical used in fumigants, welding and to make a large number of products. Sulfide is used to make other chemicals and can react with other substances to make more potentially dangerous chemicals such as sulfur dioxide or hydrogen sulfide. Chlorine is used as a cleaning agent or to make other chemicals. It was used in the first world war as chemical warfare agent.

The company was also fined more than $14,000 for air pollution violations since 2009. In 2016, ITC was fined $4,251 by TCEQ; in 2009, state regulators fined the company $10,000 for releasing more than 6,000 pounds of 1,3 butadiene because it hadn’t relieved pressure from a tank storing the chemical, causing a relief valve to lift.

Butadiene is a carcinogen to humans and is frequently used to make rubber and plastics.

In 2015, the EPA fined the company $3,300 for violations found during a Risk Management Plan inspection.

ITC also did not file monitoring reports on its chemical discharges since July 2017, as required by federal regulations.

Harris County sued ITC in 2007 for multiple violations of the Texas Clean Air Act, Texas Clean Water Act and the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act. The company settled with the county, paying $51,750 in penalties and attorney’s fees, but did not admit to any of the violations.

The county sued ITC again in 2009 for releasing more than 8,000 pounds of toluene into the ground, water and air. Harris County cited the 2007 settlement saying ITC had not upheld its end of the agreement. The company ended up paying the county $32,500 in civil penalties in the case. Toluene is a chemical used in nail polish remover, glues and paint thinner. It’s highly flammable and causes lightheadedness when inhaled.

ITC has also spilled chemicals in La Porte and Pasadena during rail transport on four separate occasions since 2009, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The spills — which were as large as 1,124 gallons — resulted in one injury from hazardous materials. ITC was sued by the Hartford Insurance Company in 2004 for the death of an ITC employee exposed to butadiene, but the case was later dismissed.

Richardson said when the company does have an issue it reports it immediately to the appropriate authorities.

Environmental activists say what’s unusual is that ITC got fined at all. A 2017 report from Environment Texas found that over the last seven years, only about 2 percent of emissions over permitted levels result in a penalty from the state.

“If TCEQ lets it slide for the smaller events or ones that might be big but didn’t make the front page, companies will just fail to take the necessary steps to prevent bigger events from happening,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas.

A Houston Chronicle report from 2016 found that there’s a major chemical incident once every six weeks in the greater Houston area. The day before the ITC tanks caught fire, a separate fire erupted and was contained at an ExxonMobil Baytown facility.

The 2016 Chronicle report, researched in coordination with Texas A&M, evaluated facilities based on the potential dangers posed by chemicals on site and the number of people who lived nearby. That report found that the ITC facility posed a medium potential for harm, a 6.48 out of a 14-point scale.

Emergency crews have fought the ITC blaze since Sunday morning. The burning tanks contain chemicals used in gasoline such as naphtha and xylene.

The only chemical involved in both the fire and ITC’s environmental violation history was toulene. ITC has not yet disclosed to the public what other chemicals are stored nearby the fire or the facility’s chemical inventories in general.

It’s not the first big fire at ITC’s Deer Park facility.

In October of 1986, a major explosion killed one, injured seven and engulfed two fire trucks. Workers had been loading barrels of methyl tertiary butyl ether or MTBE onto a barge when something ignited, causing the explosion. MTBE is used to raise the octane levels of unleaded gasoline. Officials at the time said about 13,000 barrels of the chemical were on board at the time of the explosion. The fire raged for five days.

1 Comment

  1. Larry Arcus says:

    Great story on the ITC fire. Wondering who is the insurance underwriter for the ITC Deer Park, Tx, plant? They are going to get buried in legal actions, both from individuals and class actions, I would imagine. Underwriters sometimes can go bankrupt over such catastrophes or at the least get out of insuring certain high risk industries.
    Keep up the good work!

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