Hydrogen sulfide detected in homes, ship channel cleanup continues after ITC fire

The cleanup work continues at the ITC facility in Deer Park after last week’s fire, and major cleanup is also underway on the Houston ship channel, having a big impact on vessel traffic.

U.S. Coast Guard and EPA boats are skimming these waterways, removing thousands of gallons worth of oily contaminants that spilled into the ship channel as a result of the ITC fire.

It’s having a big impact on the port of Houston, one of the busiest ports in America.

Traffic has been shut down in the Houston ship channel, which normally sees 60 tank and freight ships go through per day.

“We hope to be able to start having traffic move more frequently," said Captain Kevin Oditt with the U.S. Coast Guard. "But it will be daylight only until we can actually complete the recovery operations on the water.”

Meanwhile at the tank farms, it’s a nonstop effort to remove the remaining oil and gas components from the fire damaged tanks.

“The first being product removal of the tanks and the tank farm. The second objective would be to remediate the ditches within the ITC property." said Brent Weber, an ITC representative. 

Today, crews empty out a pygas tank and toluene tank in the burned diked area.

They successfully emptied two pygas tanks yesterday, including the one that was the source of the benzene emissions on Thursday.

That pygas has been moved to an undamaged tank.

However, the emissions from the fire have already led to a pile of lawsuits against ITC, about 1,600 claim enquiries.

Attorney Bill Ogden is already working with about 200 Deer Park area residents to file lawsuits again ITC.

“After the initial fire and then kind of the days following, they started feeling a lot of symptoms—a lot of nose bleeds, a lot of nausea, a lot of vomiting," says Ogden.

Ogden says his clients weren’t just impacted by the elevated benzene levels.

One of them recorded hydrogen sulfide in his home Thursday morning at a level of 10 parts per million.

“It’s highly poisonous at certain levels," says Ogden. "The recommended exposure limit of hydrogen sulfide is 10 minutes at 10 parts per million.”

The man lives less a mile and a half from the ITC facility. The reading occurred indoors during the Deer Park shelter in place.

“At that point he evacuated his home," Ogden said.

Today, EPA testing of air and water continues.

“In the last 24 hours there’s been no air monitoring detections," says Adam Adams with the EPA. "Air monitoring is continuously done by a lot of resources—by EPA, by TCEQ, Harris County, by ITC. I didn’t hear a single person mention hydrogen sulfide, however now that I’ve got that video and I’ve been getting calls yesterday and today, a lot of people have been saying they smelled the sweet smell. And at 10 parts per million, hydrogen sulfide does have a sweet aroma to it.”

According to sources, hydrogen sulfide at lower levels can register as a rotten egg smell, but at even more toxic readings, can be observed as a sweet odor. 

The Coast Guard reports that they opened up the San Jacinto River to two-way tow and barge traffic today after shutting it down due to the pollution. They plan to continue to assess it today and determine whether to open it up further.