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After Earlier Assurances Over Air Quality, Benzene From Petrochemical Fire Triggers 'Shelter in Place' Order for Texas City

"This is not going to get any better anytime soon."

A plume of smoke rises from a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company Monday, March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas.

A plume of smoke rises from a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company Monday, March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas. (Photo: AP/David J. Phillip)

Despite assurances early in the week from top local officials that air quality was not a threat to public health, residents in the city of Deer Park, Texas are now under a shelter in place order due to elevated and dangerous levels of benzene caused by a mass petrochemical fire in the area.

The fire started last weekend at an oil refinery plant for Royal Dutch Shell at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, a city of just over 32,000 that's 21 miles east of Houston.

Since Sunday, a plume of black smoke has been omnipresent in Deer Park skies and air quality has gone from bad to worse, despite assurances from local officials. 

On Tuesday, Harris County Public Health appeared to downplay the risks posed by the fire in a statement. 

"Based on current air monitoring reports, there continues to be a low risk to the community because the smoke is several thousand feet above the ground," said the county.

That prompted frustration from observers, who feel the city isn't doing enough for its people during the chemical fire crisis.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told residents the county was monitoring the situation. 

"It's understandable why people would be scared," Hidalgo said. 

"If there is any indication of a threat to public safety, there will be immediate notification from local emergency management officials," Hidalgo's office added Wednesday.

The fire is now technically extinguished, but dangerous chemicals are still becoming airborne. County firefighters are working to spray foam over the tanks to stop vapors from escaping, according to the city.

In a statement (pdf) on Thursday, Intercontinental Terminals Company said that although the flames were out, benzene had escaped into the air.

"These levels are below those that represent an immediate risk," the company claimed. "We have notified the surrounding municipalities and out of an abundance of caution Deer Park Emergency Operations Center has called for shelter in place precautions immediately for all of Deer Park."

Benzene is a particularly toxic chemical that can cause severe damage if inhaled or swallowed, up to and including death. 

Benzene is one of the top 20 produced chemicals in the U.S. and is frequently used in manufacturing. 

Police and the National Guard are on site in Deer Park to enforce the stay-in-place order. Residents are being instructed to remain indoors, not to use AC or heating elements, and to close fireplaces. Roads are closed throughout the city. 

The fire is only the latest issue for Intercontinental Terminals Company, according to reporting from the Texas Tribune's Kiah Collier.

"The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has fined the company at least 10 times since 2002 — and at least twice last year — for various pollution incidents," Collier wrote. "The company also has been in 'significant' noncompliance with the federal Clean Water Act for nine of the last 12 quarters, according to an Environmental Protection Agency enforcement database."

Sema Hernandez, a Houston area Democrat who will enter her party's primary for the Senate seat currently held by Republican John Cornyn, observed on Twitter that the effects of the fire will likely last for a long time. 

"This is not going to get any better anytime soon," said Hernandez.

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