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Blaze ravages Houston petrochemical tanks

A massive fire rages near Houston in Deer Park, TX, at a petrochemical storage terminal. The blaze, which began on Sunday, March 17, has expanded to engulf two adjacent storage tanks.

The inferno started after a tank began leaking flammable naphtha. Toxic smoke could be seen hovering over the region from miles away.

Japanese company bringing in firefighters

The tanks are owned by Intercontinenal Terminals Co. (ITC), a subsidiary of the Japanese company Mitsui & Co. Local firefighters were dealt a blow when the water pumps quit working for approximately six hours on the second day of the fire, company officials announced. In the interim, two additional tanks caught fire. One was empty, while the second tank contained toluene, a chemical used in the manufacture of paint thinner and nail polish remover.

The spokesperson for the company announced they were adding their own crew of 15 firefighters who have experience fighting fires in tanks. They plan to use suppressant foams and high-pressure pumps to attempt to bring the blaze under control.

The spokesperson added that, as of the third day of the inferno, they have been "in defensive mode." It's hoped that with "the expertise these [firefighters] bring, the expectation is we'll be able to go into offensive mode."

What is burning?

Each steel container contain as much as 160,000 barrels of highly volatile liquids that are used to manufacture plastics and solvents and to boost the octane in gasoline.

The ITC spokesperson explained that the tanks that are on fire are inside of a 6' earthen berm which is holding water and chemical runoff from the tanks. Each minute, fire personnel pump an additional 10K to 20K gallons of foam and water onto the burning tanks.

What's at risk?

The Houston Ship Channel, the conduit between Houston and the Gulf of Mexico, is the busiest petrochemical port in the United States. Leaked chemicals have already infiltrated these waters, despite ITC having launched containment booms to keep the toxins from contaminating the water further and to contain the chemicals. Regulators from both the federal government and the state of Texas have been monitoring the blaze. The fire is expected to burn itself out within days.

Company claims emissions within normal limits

Despite the ongoing disaster, ITC claims that the air-emission readings showed that no pollution at ground level measurements from the inferno has exceeded acceptable levels. Air monitors from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have been deployed to the site. The fire has not stopped the ship traffic, which continues to move unimpeded through the Ship Channel.

Long-term effects unknown

It's not known what, if any, long-term effects will be felt by workers and residents in the area of the burning petrochemical tanks, including nearby Lake Charles residents. But given the toxicity of the burning materials, it's highly likely that some people in proximity to the disaster will experience some adverse effects in the weeks and months after the blaze is extinguished. It may be possible to seek compensation for any damages or injuries stemming from the chemical fire.

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