Texas Tank Fires Worsen, Now Smoke Plumes Move Through Houston

A series of chemical fires in the Greater Houston area worsened Tuesday, and now officials don't know how long the blaze will continue. The fires in the tanks at Intercontinental Terminals Co. (ITC) in nearby Deer Park seemed to be under control on Monday, but they expanded from five tanks to eight by Tuesday morning.

The ITC terminal in Deer Park has 242 storage tanks that can hold 13.1 million barrels of capacity for fuel oil, bunker oil, petrochemical liquids and gases. The terminal has shipping docks for both smaller and large ships and barges, and it also has commercial truck and rail access. According to its website, the eight burning tanks are in the southern sector of the plant.

What looked to be containment has now led to uncertainty by local officials, who held a news conference at the ITC Pasadena plant on Tuesday. Now they suspect that more chemicals and fuel must be "burned off" while keeping the fire from spreading to other areas.

"Fuel has burned off," Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said, according to the Houston Chronicle. "That may be what has to happen. What I can't tell you is how long that will take."

The fire began in a portion of the ITC terminal that contains 15 tanks—three rows of five tanks. KHOU, the CBS affiliate in Houston, reported that it obtained ITC reports filed with Texas environmental regulators on Monday. The report states the initial blaze ignited in "tank 80-8," which is in the middle of the 15-tank section.

"There was a leak in the 80-8 manifold," ITC reported. "The release ignited, resulting in a fire within the manifold, involving tank 80-8 and other adjacent tanks as well."

Officials said the fire could burn out by Wednesday, but heavy smoke continues rolling through the area and westward into the state's interior.

The National Weather Service on Tuesday afternoon forecast the smoke plume moving from Deer Park, which is on the southeast section of Houston, and moving west-northwest across the Bayou City and then westward toward Austin, which is three driving hours away. The prediction cone spreads farther once the model goes beyond the Houston Metro area.

"I know the cloud of dark smoke seems ominous as it spreads over parts of the city of Houston, but we want to assure that the air quality is being monitored around the clock," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at the news conference Tuesday.

Harris County meteorologist Jeff Linder said the smoke plume is large enough to create weather patterns, and that some of the smoke will reach upwards of 6,000 feet late on Tuesday, but that it doesn't pose a human health threat, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Health officials advised residents in the area to check on their friends, family and neighbors to make sure smoke hazards haven't affected them.