CSB: Chemical Leak Caused Fire at ITC Houston Terminal

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

October 30, 2019

The Houston, Texas Refining Complex (Credit: AdobeStock / © Irina K

The Houston, Texas Refining Complex (Credit: AdobeStock / © Irina K

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said on Wednesday that a fuel leak, possibly due to open valves and a running pump, set off a massive blaze at a Mitsui & Co Ltd petrochemical storage operation along the Houston Ship Channel in March.

The fire that began on March 17 at Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) spread black smoke across Houston, shut the nearby ship channel, slowed production at local oil refineries and closed roadways and schools as it spread from one giant storage tank to 10 others before being extinguished on March 20.

ITC did not reply to a request for comment.

The safety board said investigators believe the fire started in piping next to a 80,000-barrel tank containing naphtha, a flammable liquid used in motor fuel production.

A pump connected to the piping was left running for several hours beginning the night before to mix the naphtha with another fuel and prepare it for export on March 17, it said.

The board's lead investigator noted that valves on the piping had to be operated manually, preventing emergency workers from being able to shut the piping system as the fire spread.

"The leaks could not be controlled once the fire started," said CSB lead investigator Crystal Thomas in a presentation on Wednesday.

The safety board plans to pursue the piping and other possible ignition sources for the blaze. Its review could answer "why the fuel release was not detected before ignition, why the release was not isolated, and why prolonged emergency response efforts were necessary to control and ultimately extinguish the fire," according to an initial report released on Wednesday.

No injuries were reported from the breakout of the blaze to when it was extinguished.

The CSB investigates chemical plant explosions and fires to determine root causes to improve plant safety, but has no regulatory or enforcement power.

Mitsui faces criminal charges for spilling chemicals into waterways around the ITC terminal in the Houston suburb of Deer Park, Texas, after the fire was put out. The company was cited by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violations following the fire.

Vopak, which operates a storage terminal adjacent to ITC, sued in May for at least $1 million in lost business and damages. It alleged the ITC's negligence and inability to quickly stop the fire shut Vopak’s operations for weeks.

There are also 23 other personal injury claims filed against ITC, according to court records.

Reporting by Erwin Seba

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