March 27, 2019 / 4:31 PM / 6 months ago

Texas sues fuel tank company over Houston chemical fire, aftermath

HOUSTON, March 27 (Reuters) - Texas officials on Tuesday sued owners of a Houston area petrochemical storage facility over a fire last week that burned for days, alleging violations of environmental laws and seeking damages to cover response costs for the disaster that released chemicals into the air and waterways.

The county and state jointly filed suit in a county court against Mitsui & Co’s Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC). The suit seeks reimbursement of costs for emergency responders, temporary air and water monitoring systems, and health care workers. An auditor will determine costs, officials said.

“We have been working with state and federal partners to hold ITC responsible for the damages,” Harris County Chief Executive Lina Hidalgo said on Tuesday at a hearing where local residents pushed for a response to the disaster that sent tons of carbon monoxide into the air and chemicals into waterways. Schools were closed and visits to area hospitals and clinics spiked.

Federal and state officials were already investigating the company as emergency workers pumped fuels from 11 damaged or destroyed tanks that spilled fuels out of the site. The fire began March 17 and spread among rows of giant tanks that can hold up to 80,000 barrels of fuel.

ITC has apologized for the incident but defended its response, saying the facility adheres to state regulations and fire prevention guidelines set by industry groups.

The spill of fuels, water and fire suppressant foam from the site halted traffic on a stretch of the Houston Ship Channel connecting Houston to the Gulf of Mexico. Restrictions on travel near the ITC site forced at least two refineries to curb production.

Unless crude oil tankers can reach Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s Deer Park refinery by the weekend, it could be forced to shut down, people familiar with operations said.

Schools in Houston suburbs were closed for several days after air quality monitors detected elevated levels of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical that was contained in ITC tanks that burned.

“Until these people find themselves placed in jail, you’re not going to see what needs to be done to keep these communities protected,” said County Commissioner Steve Radack at a hearing where officials approved the lawsuit.

More than 1,000 patients visited a county health clinic last week, said Elizabeth Perez, a spokeswoman for Harris County Public Health. Local hospitals also reported more visitors, she said.

Arrivals complained of respiratory and other ailments.

“We were worried about the most immediate impacts, respiratory issues, burning eyes, ears and throat, especially for those who were closer to the incident and who had pre-existing conditions,” Perez said. (Reporting by Collin Eaton and Erwin Seba; writing by Gary McWilliams; Editing by David Gregorio)

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