Students were back in school Monday around a Houston-area petrochemical storage plant that released hazardous levels of benzene fumes Friday, despite the lifting of a shelter-in-place order Thursday.
Students were back in class in Deer Park, Galena Park and other communities near the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, TX, after school ended up canceled because of concerns over air quality near the facility, which caught fire March 17 and burned for several days.
A fire erupted at the plant last Sunday, raged for three days, damaged 11 storage tanks and was put out early Wednesday morning.
Despite the fire being extinguished, there were elevated of levels of benzene detected by air monitors near the plant on Thursday, the city issued a shelter-in-place order, highways were closed and National Guard guards troops fanned out across the city to advise people to stay inside.
Later on Thursday Deer Park officials lifted the shelter-in-place order, only to wake up Friday finding a spike in benzene, 4.3 parts per million (ppm), had been detected at 5 a.m. by an air-quality gauge near the plant.
Federal guidelines say that is a hazardous level of benzene, a known carcinogen that is part of daily life. Benzene blends into motor fuels and used to make detergents and pharmaceuticals. It also sees use to extract oil from seeds and nuts, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Under rules set by the U.S. Labor Department, employers are required to provide medical exams for workers exposed to benzene above an average of 0.5 ppm of benzene over 8 hours.
Intercontinental Terminals Company Friday the benzene flare-up is “localized” so there is no need for another shelter-in-place warning.
But school administrators were not confident.
After closing its 15 schools Monday, Wednesday and Thursday due to the fire and benzene issues, Deer Park Independent School District told its 12,800 students Thursday afternoon to stay home Friday.
The EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said they have taken water samples to see if foam used to extinguish the fire has polluted bayous and the Houston Ship Channel, which was partially closed and will reopen Monday.