Source: New York Times Online, March 21, 2019
Posted on: http://www.advisen.com
A Texas city ordered residents to take shelter indoors for several hours on Thursday morning for what was the second time in a week as the air quality there worsened after a fire at a petrochemical storage facility.
Officials in the city, Deer Park, which is about 20 miles east of Houston, lifted the latest shelter-in-place order at 11:40 a.m., about seven hours after putting it in place. The order had been prompted by the levels of benzene in the air.
In a statement, emergency services and public health officials said that air quality readings in the area had improved for a sustained period of time, allowing the city to lift the order.
“Air quality readings are improving, and over the last few hours, they have been significantly reduced,” said Robert Hemminger, the city’s emergency services director. “This information, combined with the assurance of Harris County Public Health, allows us to meet our internal criteria necessary to lift our shelter-in-place.”
Officials said they would continue to monitor the air quality even after the shelter order was lifted. And on Thursday afternoon, the United States Chemical Safety Board said in a statement that it would begin an investigation into the blaze next week.
The blaze in Deer Park began on Sunday morning when a storage tank caught fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company’s facility there, the city said. The city issued the first of two shelter-in-place orders that afternoon, but lifted the order by the next morning after officials received word that air quality readings had not “exceeded action levels.”
Several fire departments fought the blaze throughout the week to prevent it from spreading and extinguished it by early Wednesday morning, officials said. Throughout Wednesday, local and federal officials had assured the public that air-quality readings were “well below hazardous levels” and that there “was no potential threat” posed by elevated levels of benzene in the air.
Benzene, which is a natural part of crude oil and gasoline, is a colorless, flammable liquid with a sweet odor that is known to cause cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Early Thursday, officials issued the second shelter-in-place order around 5 a.m. after what they said was a benzene leak at the storage facility where the fire occurred. The Deer Park Fire Department posted a statement from Judge Lina Hidalgo of Harris County, who said that air quality readings in the area had crossed “our very conservative” standards and that officials were again telling residents to take shelter “out of an abundance of caution.”
“We know this is concerning, especially to residents in the area of the shelter in place,” the judge’s statement said. “We are continuing to monitor to verify if this is a short-term, onetime exposure or a longer exposure.”
At a news conference later Thursday, Judge Hidalgo said that benzene vapor had been discovered early Thursday but that only the area around the storage facility seemed to show elevated levels of it. Low winds had kept the vapor mostly in that area, she said, adding that a “downward trend” seemed to be taking hold. Officials lifted the shelter-in-place order a few hours later.
Still, some residents have expressed skepticism about officials’ assessments after having been told for days that the air was safe to breathe only to then be told Thursday that they had to stay indoors.
“Everything has been wrapped up in this nice perfect bow in saying that there were no problems,” Terri Garcia, a longtime Deer Park resident, told The Associated Press. “Every air quality was perfect. Every wind was perfect blowing it away. And if everything was so perfect, why did it happen?”
Teams of hazardous material and chemical experts and the Texas National Guard were deployed to the area, Judge Hidalgo said. Various streets and highways were temporarily closed because of the shelter-in-place order, and the local school district canceled classes.
Liam Stack contributed reporting.