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Shell reports ‘no danger’ to community as air monitoring continues after fire at Deer Park facility

HOUSTON CHRONICLE

Shell reports ‘no danger’ to community as air monitoring continues after fire at Deer Park facility

A fire at the Shell Chemical facility in Deer Park sent black smoke billowing along Texas State Highway 225 and drew an enormous response from emergency workers. The smoke plume was so big it was spotted by satellites in space.

Contractors return home after receiving treatment

Nine contractors were released from local hospitals after being evaluated following Friday’s fire, Shell said in a tweet on Friday night. The company has not described the contractors’ injuries.

Steam continued to rise from site of the fire at 10 p.m. Friday. Shell said air monitoring was still ongoing and that monitors hadn’t detected any harmful levels of chemicals.

“There is no danger to the nearby community,” the company said.

The company said the blaze “started while the olefins unit was undergoing routine maintenance, igniting cracked heavy gas oil, cracked light gas oil and gasoline.”

Harris County commissioner reports 8 injuries occurred during fire

A spokesman for Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said eight people had been injured during the fire. Five of those people had been transported by ambulance and three transported themselves to Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital.

The spokesman added that Port of Houston fire boats had been requested to provide water for cooling.

No burns reported at Deer Park, little concern for fire to spread, sheriff says

Harris County Pollution Control was monitoring air quality in Channelview, in the direction the smoke was blowing. The agency planned to monitor the air quality until the fire was completely out.

Harris County Fire Marshal Captain James Singleton said the cause of fire was still under investigation. Singleton said the fire marshal’s office was interviewing employees in their attempts to figure out what happened.

“You’re looking at a large number of people that need to be interviewed,” Singleton said. “Everyone who was at the unit at the time of the fire, the controllers, management, anybody that called 911. There’s a significant number of interviews involved in an investigation.”

Singleton said the fire marshal’s office would be in Deer Park through the weekend.

It’s unclear where the five injured people were when the fire occurred. There were no reports of men being burned, Gonzalez said.

Despite the heavy smoke in the air, officials said they were confident in their decision to never tell people to take shelter from the smoke.

“I’ve read the advisories from both La Porte and Deer Park and both said there wasn’t a very strong wind that would move anything,” Gonzalez said. “Everything was still contained. And once they determined what it was and started depressurizing everything, it was putting itself out, in a way. There wasn’t a concern that it was going to spread.”

So far, Harris County testing finds gas levels normal

Since about 3:30pm, Harris County Pollution Control Services (PCS) has been monitoring gasses at the site of the explosion, spokeswoman Annie Tapia said.

“We have not gotten any readings of concern. It’s probably due to the fact that the smoke is so high above and dissipating above the industrial area,” Tapia said. “It does not appear to actually be coming down to where it would be harmful.”

Tapia said PCS equipment will continue monitoring the scene: “we don’t have an ending time at the moment.”

Live updates on PCS’ Deer Park monitoring data can be found online.

Sheriff: Shell fire ignited during ‘routine maintenance’

At a 6 p.m. press conference, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said there had been no off-site impacts from the fire at the Shell Chemical plant. Nothing at the plant exploded, but something did ignite while workers were doing “routine maintenance,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said the fire was caused by a “heat exchange between two heavy gas oils.”

“These things are always scary when they initially happen,” Gonzalez said. “We’re trying to get the best information that we can.”

Gonzalez said a representative from Shell was invited to the press conference, but that person didn’t make it in time.

“Hopefully they’ll be coming out with some kind of statement here soon,” Gonzalez said. “Ultimately they’re the ones that have the answers to what’s happening.

Just before 3 p.m. Shiv Srivastava, 37, and Yvette Arellano, 35 – members of environmental justice group Fenceline Watch – heard about the Shell explosion and rushed to the site to document it.

“As we got over the hump on 225, we saw the full black plume of smoke,” Srivastava said. “Then as we got closer, you could see shards of light, and you realized oh, that’s an uncontrolled flame.”

They stood across the freeway from the explosion for over an hour and Srivastava said they saw “a litany of school buses” pass, while other residents got out of their cars to take video of the plume.

“Other people were doing everyday things,” Arellano said. “There were folks having garage sales, just sitting on their porches who had no idea. There were even kids playing outside, skateboarding.”

Arellano said the pair had expected to hear a siren to indicate an industrial shelter in place, but the area was quiet. They did see emergency responders and police officers blocking the way so passers-by could not get too close to the flames.

Five transported to hospitals, no serious injuries reported

Five contract workers were transported to area hospitals for precautionary measures, mostly due to heat, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said. No serious injuries have been reported.

Everything to know about the Deer Park plant 

Harris County officials said around 5 p.m. that the situation was under control and all employees have been accounted for. Neither the company nor agencies involved in the response have given a final word regarding injuries. Here’s what you need to know about the plant, including what it makes and the history of the complex.

Flaring reported on Pemex side of facility

The fire on the Shell side of the facility has led to some flaring on the Pemex side, Pemex officials confirmed via the community alert system.

“We are taking steps to minimize any noise, light, or smoke associated with this flaring activity. At this time, we are not aware of an impact to the community or our industrial neighbors.”

Smoke plume seen from space

The National Weather Service reported Friday afternoon that the smoke plume from the Deer Park fire was visible on satellite imagery. NWS posted GIFs of the images taken from space in a Twitter thread, showing the effects of the blaze.

Welder recounts from inside the unit

Trey Smith, a welder at the Deer Park facility, could feel the heat of the flames as he raced downstairs to exit.

“We didn’t see anything initially…then we started hearing people yell say, “Hey, get out,'” he told a Houston Chronicle reporter. “Then we turned the corner to go to the stairs and you could just see the flames burst up… I was hoping it didn’t explode as we were running down the stairs…luckily it didn’t.”

Smith said some of the workers have vehicles parked closer to the unit and have to find alternate rides home.

What experts say about the massive plume from Deer Park fire

Experts say the massive plume emerging from the Shell side of a Deer Park chemical refinery could contain any number of gasses, depending on the specific location of the fire within the plant. Its dark color has more to do with an incomplete burn of hydrocarbons – things like gasoline, diesel or crude oil – than the specific gasses it contains.

“The fact that it’s black means that there’s a substantial amount of black carbon or ‘soot’ in the particles, along with a range of organic carbon compounds,” said Dr. Daniel Cohan, a Rice University professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Once experts know which section of the plant saw the explosion they will be able to identify potential contaminants, according to University of Houston VP of Energy and Innovation Dr. Ramanan Krishnamoorti.

“For instance, if it’s in the desulfurization unit, it could be sulfur,” Krishnamoorti said. However, without knowing where it is located, the first order of concern is the impact that the thick smoke could have on “people who have got compromised breathing, people who have upper respiratory challenges,” he said

Deer Park neighbors wait for final word on injuries

George Gamble, 71, a truck driver who delivers to the plant, said his daughter called him and woke him up to check his safety. He lives less than two miles from plant.

“It’s just happening too much,” Gamble said. “It’s pretty scary with the sound in the area of the flames. I’m apprehensive. If no one got hurt on the ground here, it’s going to be a miracle.”

Situation under control, Commissioner says

In a statement, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he had spoken to the plant manager and the “situation is under control.”

“All employees at the facility have been accounted for,” Garcia said. “We urge people to avoid the area to make room for emergency response. There is no shelter-in-place currently in effect.”

Air monitoring is underway and will be displayed on the county’s public dashboard, he said.

‘There goes another one’

Nathan Thompson, 45, stood in a parking lot south of the plant, watching the smoke billow out and drift to the north.

Thompson said he had been on his way to go swimming when he noticed white, then black smoke coming from the plant.

As he watched for about 30 minutes, he saw multiple ambulances go by.

Thompson said he has lived in Deer Park for about five years, and was here for the 2019 Intercontinental Terminals Company fire, which burned for three days.

“I just thought, ‘oops, there goes another one,’” he said.

There’s a loud roaring coming from the plant and two flare towers are burning east of the fire site.The parking lot of BMF Industries, 5110 Railroad St, was set up for a Cinco De Mayo party, and some employees are sitting under the tent in watching the fire.

Fire contained to Shell Chemicals Deer Park, company says

The site is shared by the Mexican oil company Pemex and Shell Chemicals, and a Pemex official said in the incident was on the Shell side. Shell officials confirmed via the community alert system that a fire was contained on their side of the plant.

“The incident is being handled within the boundaries of this facility and there is no threat to the community from this incident,” the plant’s representative wrote. “We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”

No injuries reported yet at Deer Park fire

No injuries have been reported at the site.

Social media posts showed dense black smoke rising, though local officials have not issued any warnings to shelter in place, as favorable winds were not expected to spread any of the burnoff. Nonetheless, officials urged everyone to avoid the area, as emergency crews respond.

Shell and local agencies are monitoring air quality, along with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, but have not reported any findings.

Deer Park ISD dismissal will continue as planned

Deer Park ISD confirmed in a Facebook post that it will continue with school dismissal as planned.

“Emergency officials have not called for a Shelter in Place because the wind is blowing away from the City of Deer Park and our schools,” the statement read. “At this point, the incident is not affecting school dismissal, which is taking place according to the regular schedule.  We will continue to monitor the situation.”

Massive explosion, fire reported at Deer Park plant

Multiple agencies are responding to an explosion and fire at an industrial plant in Deer Park, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said.

The explosion happened in the 5900 block of state Highway 225, Gonzalez said. The fire was reported at 2:52 p.m.

A large column of black smoke could be seen billowing out of the site on Friday afternoon. Local television news cameras showed flames billowing from a central part of the refinery, while two stacks elsewhere in the plant were topped by enormous flares.

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office and the sheriff’s office industrial team are responding to the area.

This is a developing story. Check back later for more details.

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