Deer Park Chemical Fire is Finally Out, But Emergency Planning Lessons Remain

Area firefighters finally extinguished a fire at a chemical facility in Deer Park, Texas as of early morning on Wednesday, March 20, 2019. The fire had burned for 3 days after beginning on Sunday, March 17.  The initial cause of the fire remains unknown.

As of this writing, steam and smoke remain in the area, and the potential for reignition still exists. Crews on Wednesday morning continued to spray foam and water on the tanks to cool them in an effort to prevent re-ignition of remaining materials.

The fire apparently started with a single tank of fuel, but later spread to seven tanks. By Tuesday, fire fighters had confined the blaze to five tanks in an area containing 15 of the facility’s 242 storage tanks. The burning tanks had reportedly contained petrochemicals such as naptha, xylene, and toluene.

Officials estimate that the plume from the fire had reached over 4,000 feet in height and could be seen from at least 35 miles away. The height of the plume, combined with local wind conditions, likely played a role in keeping concentrations of contaminants at ground level below hazardous levels.

Health Concerns

A shelter-in-place order was issued on Sunday for the 34,000 residents of Deer Park. However, officials lifted the order on Monday after air quality tests did not show unsafe levels of chemical pollutants in the air.

Reports completed by the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, a private consultant hired by the chemical company, indicated that air quality data collected at the facility and in nearby communities were below hazardous levels. Ray Sitton, Commissioner of the Texas Railroad Commission, stated that representatives of Harris County, EPA and the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ) were also collecting air quality data, and results did not indicate health risks. Those interested may review self-reported air emissions data associated with the incident on TCEQ’s website.

County officials had stated on Tuesday that residents would be alerted in the event that potential health hazards were identified, and encouraged people to contact a health care provider if they experienced adverse exposure symptoms that may be associated with the chemicals involved in the fire, such as headaches, dizziness and nausea or irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. A medical professional interviewed by a local news outlet stated that individuals who have serious or chronic pulmonary issues such as asthma or emphysema would be at higher risk for adverse health effects.

Emergency Planning Lessons

The Deer Park chemical fire highlights the importance of having access to emergency response information in the event of a major industrial incident. Without information about the identity of the chemicals on-site, their physical and health hazards, and appropriate firefighting and emergency response measures, first responders lack information necessary to safely control and extinguish a fire or address dangerous releases. Uncertainty about chemical hazards that may be encountered when responding to an incident places emergency personnel at risk, because it reduces the likelihood that they’ll have the proper PPE and response tactics.

Lack of chemical hazard information also places communities at risk, as members of the community, health care providers, municipal officials and other community stakeholders need this information to recognize and understand exposure symptoms, identify vulnerable populations, and take sufficient precautionary and treatment measures.

Incidents like the Deer Park chemical fire remind us that emergency planning isn’t just something businesses need to do — it’s something businesses, emergency responders and regulatory agencies need to do together. It’s a collaborative process that goes beyond the sharing of information, as important as that may be. It’s about having relationships with all stakeholders, involving them early in the planning process and making sure there are no gaps in communication that could prove costly in the event of a disaster. For more information on emergency planning, check out our on-demand webinar.

One of the most basic foundations of emergency planning is knowing what chemical hazards exist in your facility. That means keeping your chemical inventory and SDS library up-to-date, and being able to quickly access and share hazard information at all times. Consider the advantages a modern cloud-based chemical and SDS management software solution would give you in strengthening your emergency plans and streamlining emergency information sharing. The best solutions even give you the ability to map your chemical storage locations onto a footprint of your facility and share that information with emergency responders, making it that much easier for them to develop a safe and effective response strategy in the event of a serious incident.

Even the most well managed facilities still bear the risk for a serious chemical-related emergency. But with the right planning, you can minimize the impact of an incident on your business and reduce the risks to your workers and your community.