Chemical storage tanks at ITC-Deer Park are still at risk of further spills or even further fires, regulators told a Texas House of Representatives committee hearing Friday.

Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told representatives that staff from multiple agencies are still in the field, and as many as 2,000 people are still working on the response.

Of the 15 storage tanks involved in the fire, he said, nine have been “secured.” Three other contain materials considered to be low-risk, but three contain materials of greater concern.

Friday’s hearing focused on response by regulatory agencies and is likely to be just the first of several related to the fire and related release of toxic chemicals into the air and into the Houston Ship Channel.

It was a joint hearing of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and the Environmental Regulation Committee.

Answering questions for the committees were Baker; David Gray, acting regional administrator for Region 6 of the Environmental Protection Agency; Francisco Sanchez, deputy emergency management coordinator for Harris County; and Jerry Mouton, mayor of Deer Park.

State Representatives Briscoe Cain and Mary Ann Perez asked many of the questions. While neither serves on the two committees holding the hearing, Perez represents the area where the fire happened; both represent neighboring communities (and both represent parts of Baytown).

Perez pointed out that nearly three weeks after the fire began, “the situation, while currently under better control than the first days of the incident, is still very much an ongoing and serious issue.”

She asked Baker to expand on the continuing risk at the site.

“There is an ongoing risk of benzene at the site,” he said. The spikes in benzene readings are lower, though, outside the immediate site.

“They’re really focusing right now on a xylene tank, a gas blend and a naphtha tank,” Baker said of the response. 

“Part of the challenge with these is that the tanks are collapsed, so the roof is essentially sitting in the product or in the waste, so they’re having some technical issues in how do you get that [waste] out. “The valves aren’t working and it’s sealed in there.”

Currently the waste being removed from the tanks, the ground and the water is being stored in undamaged tanks both onsite and offsite and in barges. It will ultimately have to be disposed of as hazardous waste.

The committee also heard that the nature of the risk changed when the fire was put out.

While it was burning, the dangerous chemicals were mainly being incinerated by the fire. The main public health risk was from the microscopic soot particles that can embed themselves in the lungs.

Once the fire was extinguished, the chemical vapors themselves began to drift from the site and become a risk.

Both Perez and Cain asked several times if the TCEQ has the equipment and legal authority it needs to protect the public.

“What does your agency need that we could respond faster?” Cain asked Baker. 

Baker listed several kinds of monitors he would like to have, and pointed out that the ITC fire responders had immediate access to equipment owned by Harris County, the City of Houston and contractors based in the area — other regions of the state do not have such access.

Perez pointed out that for nearly 45 minutes, Deer Park 911 operators did not have information from the company as to what was burning or what risks it posed.

She also asked about the TCEQ’s regulatory authority. Baker responded TCEQ is not allowed to set design standards for bulk storage at terminals such as ITC.

“Underground storage tanks at your gas station--we are very involved in that, but as far as bulk terminals like this, statute actually provides an exemption for those facilities,” he responded.

When Cain asked what could have been done differently, Baker reiterated that TCEQ is not a firefighting agency — its concern is the effect the fire has on the environment. 

However, he would like to know more about the initial steps the company took when the fire started.

“I think a lot of us know there was more they could do, and not want to say it yet,” Cain responded.

Cain also said ITC had been asked to be part of the hearing and declined to participate.

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