Agencies Confirm the March 2019 Fire at a Texas Petrochemical Terminal Was Due to Mechanical Failure

Reuters, December 13, 2019

A March fire at a petrochemical terminal that spread a blanket of black smoke across Houston began when part of a manifold, which includes a pump and motor, on one storage tank broke, according to a report by local and federal agencies. The report by the Harris County Fire Marshal and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), found the fire at Mitsui & Co Ltd’s Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) in Deer Park, Texas, was accidental and not the result of an intentional act. An ITC spokesman said the company was studying the report.

ITC has received and is evaluating the recent report of the Harris County Fire Marshal about the March 17, 2019 fire at ITC’s Deer Park terminal,” the spokesman said. “As expected, the Fire Marshal’s report confirms that this fire was accidental.

The fire at ITC also shut the Houston Ship Channel, slowed production at local oil refineries, and closed roadways and schools as it spread from one giant storage tank to 11 others before being extinguished on March 20. The blaze consumed a dozen 80,000-barrel tanks containing volatile naphtha enriched with butane, according to the report.

The Houston Chronicle first reported on the report’s release on Wednesday. The findings are consistent with those of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which in a preliminary report on Oct. 30, said a fuel leak led to the start of the fire. Like the CSB, the fire marshal and ATF also found there was neither a fire-alarm system, nor a fire-suppression system at the ITC facility.

According to the Harris County Fire Marshal-ATF report, a portion of the manifold, which includes a pump, electric motor and coolant system for transferring products between two tanks, broke and 9,000 gallons of butane-enriched naphtha began leaking on the morning of March 17. The breakdown within the manifold provided the ignition source for the fire, which began about a half-hour after the leak began, the report said.

Firefighting efforts were hampered on the first day by the inability to directly spray water on the burning manifold, the report said. Firefighters aimed a water cannon to spray water off a nearby tank onto the fire.

The CSB, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Occupational and Safety Administration, and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality continue to investigate the fire.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Tom Brown)

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