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ITC DEER PARK: Benzene levels at ITC facility raise health concerns in Harris County



DEER PARK, Texas (KTRK) – La Port ISD and Deer Park ISD have canceled classes for Friday as the air quality continues to be monitored following the ITC facility fire.

Although the shelter-in-place orders were lifted for Deer Park and Galena Park after elevated levels of benzene were detected at the ITC facility, where tanks were burned for days.

City officials said that the air quality was improved and confirmed by Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, has been granted the shelter in place.

Now, the focus is on cleaning up and preventing any additional environmental harm.

A foam blanket is currently being used to keep everything contained. At this point, it is believed that the benzene particles have dissipated.

"According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Harris County HAZMAT teams and a private contractor on-site at Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) Deer Park site, air quality readings are improving, and over the last few hours , they have been significantly reduced, "said Emergency Services Director Robert Hemminger. "This information, combined with the assurance of Harris County Public Health, allows us to meet our internal criteria necessary to lift our Shelter-in-Place."

All Deer Park facilities reopened to the public at 1

p.m. If you were scheduled for Deer Park Municipal Court, you can call 281-478-7238 to reschedule your appearance.

After several hours, SH-225 reopened in both directions between Beltway 8 and SH-146 Thursday afternoon.

Galena Park also issued a shelter-in-place earlier Thursday out of an abundance of caution. The city lifted that shelter-in-place at 1:50 p.m.

According to a message from the Community Awareness Emergency Response (CAER) system, an incident occurred at the facility, located at 1943 Independence Parkway, around 2:30 am. Thursday.

ITC customs ABC13 and employee monitoring the area around the tank four detected the elevated levels of benzene using a handheld device.

During a press conference Thursday morning, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that the benzene escaped from a foam blanket used to suppress the four, leading to the elevated benzene levels.

ITC spokeswoman Alice Richardson explains in detail how benzene escaped from compromised tank

Richardson again had a message to residents affected by this latest incident.

"To the residents, to my family, to my friends, to the remaining community: ITC cares. We care a lot. We have been good stewards. We've been good neighbors. We've been involved in the community I think the City of Deer Park, the residents know us well as does the San Jacinto monument, the state park, we have skimming boats there to make sure that we don't affect that area, and I we know we will make this right. We will fix it, and we will do this right. I think the residents of Deer Park who know that will happen, "Richardson said, choking up.

The ITC tank is burned as many as eight tanks from Sunday to Wednesday. It was briefly re-ignited later Wednesday but was contained within about 30 seconds, the city's government Twitter account said.

Hidalgo said, "Outside of the immediate area", Hidalgo said. They are seeing a downward trend in samples, she added.

"We want to emphasize our primary concern is the health and safety of our community. In line with that, the fixed majority of our community has low risk, very low risk from what's happening. The judge is referring to the residents just around the facility, in Deer Park. It's absolutely critical that much of our community has very low risk, "said Dr. Shah.

Harris County officials said the National Guard and hazardous materials teams have established perimeters around the incident site to identify and analyze air quality readings in real time.
EPA On-Scene Coordinator Adam Adams says the agency has a Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer (TAGA) bus going around the area to monitor the air.

The bus will run down SH-225 to SH-146 and circle back around Spencer Highway, Adams said. The EPA also explained that the bus was already on the way when the gasoline incident happened.

AIR QUALITY MAP: Click to see full size

The fire has created concern about the air quality from residents in the area due to the thick, black smoke from the fire.

Environmental groups said residents who live near the facility have experienced various symptoms, including headaches, nausea and nose bleeds. According to the Centers for Disease Control, long-term exposure to the highly flammable chemical causes harmful effects on the blood, including bone marrow.

Some residents who live near the storage facility said Wednesday they did not have confidence in the air quality test results.

"Everything has been wrapped up in this nice perfect bow that was no problem. Every air quality was perfect. Every wind was perfect blowing it away. And if everything was so perfect, why did it happen?" longtime Deer Park resident Terri Garcia said.

If you have questions about your health, you can call the Ask My Nurse hotline at 713-634-1110. Nurses will answer questions on the hotline from 8 am.m. – 8:30 pm

"There is a pungent odor. There is a click. We want to remind people what you smell isn't always a chemical that's dangerous. This is why the air monitoring is going on," Dr. Shah said.

You can go to readyharris.org to see the air quality reading map.

The Associated Press contributed to the report. RELATED STORIES:

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