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Deer Park Spill Still Affecting Houston Ship Channel

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The Deer Park tank fire as seen from space, March 19. The ditch leading to Tucker Bayou is obscured by the smoke, top center (Planet Labs / Twitter)

By The Maritime Executive 2019-03-28 16:52:46

Traffic remains backed up at the busy petroleum port of Houston, Texas as cleanup continues for the spill from the International Terminals Co. tank farm on the Houston Ship Channel. 

While an earlier draft restriction has been lifted, the channel in the area of the spill is still limited to transits during daylight hours only, and even then it is only available one way at a time for large vessels. Traffic in both directions must pass through designated decontamination sites after passing through the spill area, though very few vessels have required decontamination so far. 

With these restrictions in place, the channel is currently handling about one third of its normal traffic levels, and the Houston Pilots report that 55 vessels are waiting to go into the channel with 19 more waiting to come out. As of Thursday, there is no timeline for when the channel will fully reopen. 

The cleanup effort affects a small stretch of the channel just off the Deer Park refining complex, primarily in Tucker Bayou, a harbor area that responders have encircled with containment booms. Officials say that response teams have recovered about 12,000 barrels of waste so far. 

Lawsuits begin

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has sued the tank farm operator, International Terminals Company, for alleged violations of the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act and the Texas Water Code. “No Texan should have to suffer through what ITC’s neighbors have had to endure this week,” said TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker in a statement Wednesday. “We’ve asked the attorney general to bring the full weight of the law against ITC with this action.”

The State of Texas is seeking a permanent injunction against International Terminals, along with civil penalties, attorney fees, court costs, and investigative costs. 

Harris County, which contains Deer Park, is also suing ITC. “ITC is responsible for burning and air emissions in violation of the state’s Clean Air Act, discharging industrial waste into nearby waters in violation of state law and county regulations, and violation of county floodplain regulations by not having development permits for structures at its facility," the county wrote. 

The fire at the ITC tank farm broke out on March 17, and it spread to seven filled tanks at its peak. It was largely out by March 20, but on March 22, the containment wall around the tank farm failed. This sent an unknown quantity of refined petroleum products and firefighting foam into a ditch that drains into the Houston Ship Channel. The U.S. Coast Guard closed the channel to marine traffic due to the spill and ongoing cleanup activity. 

Surface water sampling from the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay has not revealed any significant levels of contamination, according to TCEQ. Water supplies are not threatened, as no communities draw water from the channel. However, state officials have warned residents not to eat fish caught in the affected area. 

On Thursday, eleven days after the accident, ITC president and CEO Bernt Netland posted a video expressing his apologies, marking his first public appearance since the fire began. The firm says that it is still investigating the cause of the fire.

Smoke plume from the tank fire as seen from the air, March 19 (Kyle Barnhart / Twitter)