Teams of firefighters stationed along Tidal Road spray burning tanks with foam in hopes of cooling them down.
Firefighters try to extinguish a chemical fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company near Houston in March of 2019. Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Credit: Environmental Protection Agency

A Houston-area chemical storage facility that erupted in flames in 2019 is the subject of a public hearing Thursday about the renewal of its federal operating permit.

Intercontinental Terminals Company, or ITC, stores and transfers millions of barrels of volatile chemicals at its tank farm in Deer Park, Texas. In March 2019, a leak at one of its tanks ignited a chemical fire that burned for three days and blanketed Deer Park and surrounding communities with thick, black smoke. 

A recent investigation by Public Health Watch and The Texas Tribune found that federal and state regulators had identified leaks and other issues at ITC for nearly two decades before the fire, but did little to address the problems. After the fire was extinguished, dangerous levels of the carcinogen benzene lingered in the air for weeks.

The ITC facility has had 11 accidental chemical releases since the fire, including one in a group of tanks adjacent to the section that burned. In that February 2022 incident, almost 400 pounds of volatile organic compounds — which include flammable chemicals and some carcinogens — were released over 23 days. Four months later, another accident sent 4,500 pounds of 1,3-butadiene into the air after a valve malfunctioned. The chemical is highly flammable and can cause cancer.

Dozens of written comments have been submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, in advance of Thursday’s hearing. Many cite the 2019 fire as reason enough to deny ITC’s permit application.

“If the company is unable to securely store such combustible items, they shouldn’t be given more permits that will only cause more risk for public health and environment,” one commenter wrote.

“Allowing more oil and gas permits is unreasonable considering they can’t properly manage those which they already have,” another wrote. “Putting more people and environments at risk is not the right thing to do.”

The permitting of large petrochemical facilities is a highly technical and often convoluted undertaking, with few penalties for agencies or companies that don’t meet deadlines. ITC needs two critical permits: A 10-year chemical permit, which the TCEQ renewed nine months after the fire in 2019, and a five-year operating permit, which is the subject of tomorrow’s hearing. 

ITC is also in the process of renewing the operating permit for a smaller tank farm it owns in Pasadena, which borders Deer Park and was also affected by the fire. The TCEQ approved the permit and sent it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for final approval. But the EPA sent it back, saying the permit didn’t require enough air monitoring and didn’t set specific terms and conditions that regulators need to ensure compliance by the company. 

The EPA gave the TCEQ 90 days to address those problems, but 10 months later the issues haven’t been resolved. A TCEQ spokesperson said the agency “continues to work with the applicant and EPA to resolve the objections.”  

State regulators aren’t penalized if they don’t act on EPA suggestions. Gabriel Clark-Leach, an attorney who specializes in air permits for the Environmental Integrity Project, a research and advocacy organization, said that in most cases, the next steps are less defined. The state and federal agencies may informally negotiate changes to the permit. Or the EPA may go ahead and decide to accept the permit as is. 

“If the permits don’t get fixed, then these objections don’t really mean anything.” Clark-Leach said.

So far, ITC has faced relatively minor financial consequences from the 2019 fire.

In 2021, it paid $900,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Harris County, which said the company violated county development laws and polluted the region’s storm water system. That year ITC’s parent company, the Japan-based Mitsui Group, recorded $7.39 billion in profits.

ITC is also facing $53,000 in proposed fines from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for equipment violations, although that case is still open.

In 2019, the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued ITC on behalf of the TCEQ, saying the company had violated the Texas Clean Air Act. According to Travis County District Court records, however, there have been no court filings in the case since 2021. 

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is expected to issue its final report on the ITC fire this summer. It has no power to issue fines or citations, but can offer recommendations to companies, trade groups and regulatory agencies, including the EPA and OSHA. 

The public hearing for ITC’s operating permit renewal begins at 7 p.m. Thursday in Gaines Mason Auditorium at Deer Park High School’s north campus.