Houston Tanks That Escaped 3 1/2-Day Blaze May Be Demolished

(Bloomberg) -- Petrochemical storage tanks adjacent to the fire that spewed a massive smoke column a mile above Houston may need to be razed, the owner said.

Just hours after firefighting crews extinguished the 3 1/2-day blaze, Intercontinental Terminals Co. said some of the tanks at its Deer Park, Texas, complex that escaped the flames probably suffered heat damage and might be demolished. The cause of the conflagration hasn’t been determined; the site 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of downtown Houston is still too hot for investigators to probe.

The fire consumed or heavily damaged several steel tanks that each could hold almost 4 million gallons of chemicals. Located in the heart of the Western Hemisphere’s largest oil-processing nexus, ITC’s facility is used to store leftovers from the refining process that are used to make gasoline, paint thinner and nail polish. One of the tanks that burned held 72,000 barrels of naphtha, which would be valued at $4.7 million at current prices.

“With the amount of heat that was exposed to those tanks, we’ll have to take all of those most likely out of service, might have to inspect them, potentially have to demolish them and probably start over,” David Wascome, ITC’s senior vice president of operations, told reporters on Wednesday.

Schools Closed

Although the towering black plume that arced across the fourth-largest U.S. city was gone Wednesday morning, ITC executives warned that smoke and steam may still be visible from the area, and firefighting crews will continue to spray foam and water on the tanks to prevent re-ignition.

Even before the fire was out, schools were ordered closed for the day in Deer Park and nearby suburbs on concern that shifting weather patterns might shift the inky smoke down to ground level and make breathing hazardous.

Local officials warned residents not to touch any debris or dust that may have fallen from the plume.

ITC hasn’t yet tallied up the dollar value of the losses it incurred in the fire. The Environmental Protection Agency said it hadn’t detected hazardous levels of pollutants such as volatile organic compounds near the site.

Houstonians are no strangers to spectacular events at the warren of refineries and chemical plants along the Gulf Coast. An industrial fire, blast or leak occurs every 36 hours, according to the EPA. Gas flares and the occasional orange fireball dot the southeastern skyline.

The huge dark cloud, though, was unusual. “Being an oil and gas guy, I didn’t freak out, but a lot of my friends panicked that we’re going to have a Gotham black cloud over our city for the next 10 years,” said Doug Tinsley, 36, a petroleum engineer.

Intercontinental’s facility in Deer Park has a total of 242 tanks located near the Houston Ship Channel, a primary port of call in the Gulf Coast industrial center that supplies a big chunk of the world’s fuel, chemicals and plastics. Intercontinental is owned by Japan’s Mitsui & Co.

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