Deer Park fire: Officials investigating what caused reignition as organizations worry about pollution

Shell officials say a fire at their Deer Park chemicals facility was reignited around 3:15 p.m. Saturday, hours after emergency crews announced the fire had been extinguished. 

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Authorities say the initial fire started about 24 hours before, shortly after 3 p.m. on Friday.

A plume of thick, black smoke billowed into the air once again Saturday afternoon, after Shell officials said the olefins unit in Deer Park off Highway 225 near the Beltway, reignited.

Shell officials say the products burning include cracked heavy gas oil, cracked light gas oil, and gasoline.

Nine contractors were injured as a result of the fire Friday, but according to authorities, all were medically evaluated as an extra precaution.

Authorities said there was no threat to the community and no shelter-in-place orders were ever issued. 

However, residents like Crystal and Jonathan Abner who live a block away from the fire say they took matters into their own hands and evacuated out of extra precaution.

"He ended up grabbing the dog and leaving because he was here, and we ended up going to Walmart, and we stayed there for a little while," Crystal said. 

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"To be honest with you, we’re kinda used to it. I'm an industrial worker too, things happen," Jonathan said.

Jen Hadayia, the Executive Director for the non-profit environmental advocacy organization, Air Alliance Houston, questions the standards and oversight of these facilities.

"We know for a fact that a fire which produces thick dark smoke contains particulate matter that is an air hazard," she said. "Particulate matter is one of the most dangerous air pollutants for us. When statements are made that they there is no danger to the community. We believe that's simply a public relations statement, and it's not about public health."

Hadayia says Air Alliance Houston is pointing the finger specifically at the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality after the agency that monitors air, water, and land pollution was referred to as a 'reluctant regulator' in a recent state review.


"This facility, as an example, had well over 200 documented emergency events before Friday's fire," she said. "In our opinion, those are warning signs, and if our state regulators are not expecting change, are not investigating for change, are not holding this facility accountable for change, they are equally responsible for the disasters that happen.

"The investigation into ITC Deer Park found that there were much higher levels of the carcinogen benzene in the community, lingering for days after the event, even after industry and regulator said that the air was safe," Hadayia continued.

Air Alliance gave this response after Shell said there was no danger to the community:

"Last night, after a fire erupted and burned for hours at their facility, sending nine people for medical evaluation, Shell Chemical officials said "There is no danger to the nearby community." This is patently false. Smoke from fire, by definition, contains Particulate Matter, one of the most dangerous air pollutants, lodging in lungs and causing respiratory issues.

Moreover, during events like this, other toxic chemicals made or in use at the facility are also released into the air. This particular plant manufactures olefins, such as ethylene, propylene, and butadiene, which are known carcinogens. Since the facility has 24 hours to self-report the amount of emissions released, stating there is no harm is knowingly misleading.

Jennifer Hadayia, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston said: "Every time there is an event – a large-scale fire like what happened yesterday or even everyday flares – industry representatives tell us there is no cause for concern, that the lingering smells, smoky air, and even itchy throats and coughs are ‘normal.’ History has shown that these early statements are for the benefit of industry public relations and not public health."

As evidence: a two-part investigative report released this week by the Public Health Watch and the Texas Tribune about a fire in 2019 at the nearby ITC petrochemical tank farm in Deer Park revealed that toxic levels of benzene lingered in the air for days after the disaster, even though industry and regulatory officials told residents the air was safe. This was due to the use of inadequately protective standards for benzene risk.

The mistakes of the past cannot be repeated. Industry and regulatory officials must be transparent about what has been released into the air and its implications for health. As they monitor the air following yesterday’s event, they must use air toxics standards that are scientifically up-to-date and protective of public health. Exposure to these chemicals can have harmful health effects even in the short-term. We recommend that anyone who has been in the vicinity of the fire and is experiencing health issues to seek medical advice."

So far, authorities have not determined what started the fire. 

Meanwhile, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez shared portions of a statement from Shell saying in part, "water continues to be added to nearby retention ponds with an expectation that when the fire is extinguished, large volumes will still be needed to cool equipment for up to 36 hours." 

"Air monitoring is ongoing and has not detected any harmful levels of chemicals affecting neighboring communities," the release continues. "There is no danger to the nearby community, however residents and neighbors may notice black smoke, flaring and increased noise from the facility. Our immediate priorities remain the safety of people and the environment."