Erandi Trevino, Houston organizer for Public Citizen, questions representatives for ITC — which is applying to renew a federal permit for its Deer Park plant that caught fire in 2019 — and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality at a public hearing Thursday in Deer Park. Credit: Douglas Sweet Jr. for The Texas Tribune

Texas environmental regulators heard from dozens of Texans on Thursday night who asked them to reject a Houston-area chemical tank farm’s federal operating permit, fearing a repeat of a massive 2019 chemical fire at the facility.

Four years ago, a group of chemical tanks at Intercontinental Terminals Company facility in Deer Park caught fire after a tank’s pump failed and began to leak naphtha, a highly flammable liquid. The fire spread quickly from tank to tank, sending an enormous black smoke plume over the Houston area. The fire burned for four days and benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, was released into the air.

At a tense hearing in Deer Park, residents told representatives of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that high levels of benzene in the air severely impacted their health and the health of workers nearby. Some who testified said the 2019 fire should be enough evidence for Texas regulators to deny the facility’s permit.

Tracy Cook Schmidt, who lives about 2 miles from the facility, told ITC officials they “will answer to God” for her son’s leukemia. She is suing ITC and blames the benzene in the air for her son’s sickness.

“I hope you make the right decision,” she said.

A recent investigation by The Texas Tribune and Public Health Watch revealed that for years before the 2019 fire, federal and state regulators documented repeated problems but did little to address them. The facility stores and distributes hazardous chemicals, gases and petroleum products for the thousands of chemical plants and refineries lining the Houston Ship Channel.

The investigation found that benzene emissions reached dangerous levels in Deer Park weeks after the fire was extinguished. Air data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed that on at least seven different days after the last public warning to stay indoors, benzene levels spiked higher than the threshold that officials had chosen to issue public warnings — including one day when spikes were detected in Deer Park neighborhoods.

Scientists who have studied the ITC fire say officials should have used a lower threshold to warn the public and that more precautions, including shelter-in-place warnings, should have been taken during the incident to protect public health.

Days after the 2019 fire started, hundreds of residents sought medical treatment. Many said they struggled to breathe and experienced severe headaches, heart problems and coughed up blood.

During Thursday’s hearing, held in Deer Park High School’s auditorium, residents asked the TCEQ representatives questions about ITC’s previous violations and often received “I don’t know” as a response. The responses from agency representatives drew sarcastic laughter and shouts from the audience. “What’s the point?” of the meeting, residents asked.

Residents blamed state and federal regulators for not adequately responding to their environmental or health concerns after the 2019 fire.

Patricia Gonzales, 56, who has lived in neighboring Pasadena for 25 years, said she experienced severe headaches and throat irritation during the ITC fire and she drove herself to urgent care for treatment. She said she was ill for a week and a half.

Frustrated by the answers she received from TCEQ about the facility’s compliance track record, she pleaded with regulators to “do their job” and reject the permit.

Shanon DiSorbo, a consultant representing ITC at Thursday’s public hearing, responds to community members about the company’s permit renewal application. Credit: Douglas Sweet Jr. for The Texas Tribune

“It’s sad and disgusting to hear that you don’t know anything. You are just sitting there like laying ducks,” Gonzales said. “You are not doing your job. You are not protecting the citizens and the people that live in the surrounding areas of this company. I demand that you don’t pass this permit for them.”

The company needs two key permits to keep the 265-acre facility open. The first is a 10-year chemical permit, which the state renewed less than a year after the March 2019 fire. The other is a federal operating permit, which is evaluated every five years and is up for renewal this year.

Yvette Arellano, founder of Fenceline Watch, an environmental watchdog organization, spoke at the hearing and recalled getting stuck on Highway 225, which borders the cluster of petrochemical plants near Deer Park, as emergency responders zoomed to the facility.

When Arellano got home, “I was trapped inside my home and had to shelter in place. I put plastic on the windows and shut off my air conditioner.”

Deer Park resident Jannette Sexton, whose home is 3 miles from the facility, told the TCEQ staff that the ITC plant “is very dangerous to the quality of our life. I am not sure what we are doing here tonight, because I feel TCEQ is a toothless agency that does absolutely nothing to protect the citizens of Texas.”

State Sen. Carol Alvarado, who represents Houston and a part of Deer Park, sent Rolando Coronado, her district director, to read her comments.

“These incidents and investigations suggest a systemic failure in the regulatory oversight of ITC, and they raised serious concerns about the facility’s ability to operate safely and within regulatory compliance,” Alvarado’s statement said.

Alvarado wrote that she is urging the TCEQ to thoroughly review the history of ITC’s violations and hold the company accountable.

TCEQ will review comments and testimony from citizens and then decide whether to approve the permit or require revisions. If approved, the permit will then be forwarded to the EPA, which will have 45 days to review it.

But TCEQ staff attorney Amy Browning told the audience at the hearing that the 2019 ITC fire is not part of the permit evaluation.

The EPA has authority to reject the permit. Environmental advocates say they are seeing the federal agency reject more permits under the Biden administration.

EPA rejected the permit for ITC’s Pasadena facility last year, stating the facility didn’t have sufficient air monitoring to track emissions and assure compliance. The EPA gave ITC 90 days to address the problems, but there have been no new developments in the case in 10 months.

Advocates are urging the EPA to also reject the Deer Park facility’s permit.

A spokesperson for ITC told the Tribune in a statement before the hearing that the company has invested more than $50 million in safety and emergency response improvements at its Deer Park terminal since the 2019 fire, including new central control room alarms, additional gas detection equipment, emergency shutdown valves and fire response equipment.

“These improvements represent a sustained commitment by ITC to overall safety, operational reliability, and environmental integrity,” a company spokesperson said.

The company’s training program for firefighting, hazardous materials management, rescue and incident response has also gone through annual updates and “continuous improvements,” according to the spokesperson.

Attendees brought signs protesting TCEQ and ITC to the hearing at Deer Park High School on Thursday. Credit: Douglas Sweet Jr. for The Texas Tribune

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has not completed its investigation of the 2019 disaster, four years later. A final report is expected this summer.

Thursday’s hearing ended after TCEQ staff heard comments from more than 20 people. Jennifer Hadayia, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, a nonprofit focused on the health impacts of air pollution, called it “one of the most discouraging permit hearings ever and least communicative. [TCEQ] was deliberately attempting to hold information back.”

Disclosure: Air Alliance Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.