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Deer Park ITC fire causes complications for commuter students

The Deer Park fire’s smoke traveled all the way to Austin over the days it burned. | Corbin Ayres/The Cougar

When Houston residents looked to the sky on March 18, they were likely surprised to find a trail of black smoke mingling with the clouds.

According to a press release from the Intercontinental Terminals Company, a fire was reported March 17 at their Independence Parkway South terminal where petrochemical liquids, gases, fuels, oils and distillates are stored. After three days of burning the fire was extinguished, but it reignited at least once on March 20 and has since released numerous chemicals into the air and water.

“I’ve been primarily concerned with how this will affect my health going forward,” said biology and Spanish senior Kyle McDaniel via Twitter DM.

The chemicals released in the fire were naphtha, xylene, pyrolysis, gasoline and benzene, in some form. A more recent spill has caused similar chemicals to leak into the Houston Ship Channel. 

Many of these chemicals have harmful effects on the body if inhaled. Benzene is a known carcinogen and may be harmful to reproductive organs.

The incident has also left a number of students unable to drive to and from the University of Houston safely.

When I left church and headed for work, there was already a massive black plume billowing from a site close to the San Jacinto Monument,” McDaniels said. “At first I was a bit shocked but honestly, growing up in the area, these things aren’t that uncommon.”

McDaniels, a Deer Park local, lives less than two minutes from where the fire originated.

The Deer Park and Galena Park areas surrounding the ITC compound were put under orders to shelter in place as the events were unfolding.

I was fortunate to have not had classes during the shelter in place, so my class schedule was not affected,” McDaniels said.

Other students, however, would have to juggle a class schedule and emergency management.

Getting to class 

The University of Houston advised its students to “use (their) best judgment” via a Tweet made from the official University Twitter. 

Denny Wilson, a 22-year-old management information systems senior, tweeted the University asking how students were expected to get to their classes if there was an active shelter in place in their city. 

“The UH account responded back by telling students to use their best judgement,” Wilson said. “But by saying that, they’re telling students to put themselves at risk to attend class. In addition, the roads in my neighborhood were completely closed down, so had I tried to get to school, I wouldn’t have been able to.”

The shelter in place may have affected only a handful of students, but students should have the opportunity to attend class and learn, Wilson said. She would have to miss class and get notes from fellow classmates in order to not fall behind.

“(My professors) were understanding, but it is frustrating that I wasn’t able to go and learn myself,” Wilson said.

McDaniels, who was in Deer Park during the first round of shelter in place orders, recalls smelling benzene in parts of his house and having to seal open spaces underneath doors and windows with wet towels.

“(It) was surreal,” McDaniels said. “I ended up leaving my house around 10 a.m. while the (shelter in place) was still in effect in order to get to my internship. When I left, I took with me two changes of clothes, not knowing if I’d be allowed to return.”

Lingering smoke

The trail of smoke lingered in the Houston area after the fire was initially extinguished.

“The weather was perfect to help lift the plume to several thousand feet altitude, where it did not affect people at ground-level,” said Robert Talbot, director of the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science. “As long as the plume stayed aloft, it was not dangerous locally.”

The plume of smoke is expected to have very little to no effect on local climate, Talbot said.

Despite the altitude of the plume, students were advised by officials in their respective cities to shelter in place while the fire was burning.

Since the fire has been extinguished, a breach of the secondary containment wall has caused a release of product that has elevated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the area. This has led to the Independence Parkway, the San Jacinto Monument, the Battleship Texas State Parks and the Lynchburg Ferry crossing to be temporarily closed.

The Houston Ship Channel has also been affected. Portions of the channel have been closed, and the U.S. Coast Guard was called in to assist in cleanup efforts after VOCs leaked into the water resulting in closures that are projected to cost the energy industry at least $1 billion, according to the Houston Chronicle.

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