Officials have no timetable for reopening a portion of the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest commercial waterways in the country, after another setback caused flammable chemicals to seep into the water near a fire-ravaged petrochemical tank farm, a Coast Guard commander said Saturday.
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Coast Guard Capt. Kevin Oditt said during a news conference that work was underway to contain and absorb benzene and other contaminants after a dike failed adjacent to the farm operated by the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, southeast of Houston.
The breach occurred Friday. As of early Saturday, more than 40 vessels — oil tankers, container ships and other crafts — were either trying to move south out of the channel or north toward awaiting terminals, according to Coast Guard petty officer Kelly Parker. The channel is a critical waterway that connects oil refineries between the Port of Houston and the Gulf of Mexico.
ITC was planning Saturday to resume pumping some 20,000 barrels of product from a tank heavily damaged by the fire, which began Sunday, March 17, and was extinguished Wednesday, but flared again on two occasions. The most recent flare-up on Friday took an hour to suppress and disrupted the pumping, ITC executive Brent Weber said.
The tanks that caught fire contained components of gasoline and materials used in nail polish remover, glues and paint thinner.
Residents already alarmed by a large plume of black smoke that billowed for days from the farm were further shaken by an order Thursday to remain indoors after elevated levels of benzene were detected in the air. Schools in the region also were shuttered and waterfront parks were closed to the public as a precaution. The chemical evaporates quickly and can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and headaches, with worse symptoms at higher levels of exposure.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against ITC, saying Friday that Texas had to hold the company "accountable for the damage it has done to our environment." The company has had a history of environmental violations, Paxton said.
ITC spokeswoman Alice Richardson declined to comment on Paxton's claims, citing the pending litigation.
Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton Jr. has spent days giving assurances that company and public officials are working in a transparent manner to provide the latest updates to anxious residents.
"Everything doesn't always work the way it's planned," he told reporters Saturday.
"Everybody out here is doing the best they can," Mouton said, later adding, "They're trying to address every situation to the best of their ability."