Toxic Chemical Inferno Threatens Houston Area As Black Plume Extends For Miles

The petrochemical fire that has been raging out of control at an oil storage facility in Deer Park, Texas since Sunday is now impacting the greater Houston area by what's been described as a "plume of thick, black smoke [which] for a third day intensified overnight as pungent fumes pervaded neighborhoods more than 20 miles away," according to Bloomberg and local reports

The Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, Texas on March 18. Image source: AP

The fire which has consumed highly flammable chemical tanks at the Intercontinental Terminals Company oil plant about 15 miles (24 kilometers) southeast of Houston remains "uncontrolled" according to local officials. 

The petrochemical fire had triggered a "shelter-in-place" warning for area residents on Sunday, who were further advised by Deer Park city officials to close air ventilation systems in their homes and close all windows.

Disturbingly, a black plume has settled over downtown Houston and has now reportedly made its way to the city's northside. Bloomberg cited one local woman who noted"You can really smell and taste it now."

According to prior local reports, the initial chemical tanks that caught fire were known to contain a highly flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture called naphtha, which is often used as a raw material for production and conversion to gasoline.

Bloomberg further described:

" residential neighborhoods on the city's north side, a chemical odor descended Tuesday morning on an otherwise clear day."

Naphtha is classified as "Extremely flammable" and a dangerous irritant to humans if encountered in "high vapor concentration".

According to its chemical safety fact sheet it is "Irritating to eyes and respiratory system. Affects central nervous system. Harmful or fatal if swallowed. Aspiration Hazard."

Now a total of eight storage tanks are reported to be on fire after firefighters dealt with a drop in water pressure while attempting to extinguish the fire Monday evening. 

Starting Monday a thick haze began to gather over the fourth largest city in the United States, worrying employees who were in Houston's downtown high rises. 

City and environmental officials have throughout the ordeal assured residents that Harris County Pollution Control was conducing air quality monitoring tests of the area, but still cautioned residents to stay indoors if at all possible.

On Monday the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said in a public statement that there were no "immediate health concerns at ground level," but residents have complained that updates have not been issued fast enough. Monitors with the Intercontinental Terminals Company also sought to assure Deer Park citizens that "Readings are currently well below hazardous levels."

A number of Houston area schools were closed due to the potential for toxic air problems on Monday and Tuesday, and highways running near the facility were shut down in both directions. 

Potential health effects of the smoke include coughing, difficulty breathing and irritation to eyes and throat, according to the One Breath Partnership, an organization that works to improve air quality. — Bloomberg/Houston Chronicle

Deer Park residents were first notified early Sunday by the following public alert: "City of Deer Park issuing SHELTER-IN-PLACE emergency in Deer Park," the city wrote in multiple emergency messages. "Please take immediate action and seek shelter," the warnings directed.

In a follow-up warning which was also extended to Pasadena and other suburbs of Houston, people were advised: "Residents are asked to remain sheltered and avoid going outdoors if at all possible. Community air monitoring is being conducted and additional updates will be provided as they become available."