August 30, 2023

CSB: Regulatory Exemptions Contributed to 2019 Fire at Texas Tank Farm

A March 2019 fire at a liquid storage terminal that caused more than $150 million in damages could have been prevented if the company had been required to apply a formal process safety management program, according to a final report from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). The incident stemmed from the failure of a circulation pump at a facility owned by the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) in Deer Park, Texas. The failure resulted in the release of a product that contained naphtha, a volatile mixture of petroleum hydrocarbons, and butane, a highly flammable gas. The product ignited a fire that spread to 14 other tanks and burned for three days.

Concerns about air quality prompted authorities to require residents of Deer Park, a community of more than 30,000 people, to shelter in place. During the response to the incident, local waterways became contaminated with hydrocarbon products and firefighting foam due to the partial collapse of a containment wall. Part of the Houston Ship Channel was closed, as were several waterfront parks in the surrounding area.

According to CSB, the tank that leaked was exempted from requirements in both the OSHA process safety management (PSM) standard and the EPA risk management program (RMP) rule that would have given ITC additional opportunities to control related hazards. OSHA originally cited ITC for violations of the PSM standard, but these were removed following a settlement agreement between the agency and the company. ITC maintained that the PSM standard’s “atmospheric storage tank exemption” applied to the tank in question.

CSB characterizes the atmospheric storage tank exemption as controversial and has called for OSHA to eliminate it from the standard. The exemption was a contributing factor in a July 2001 explosion at a refinery in Delaware and an October 2009 explosion at a petroleum facility in Puerto Rico, according to CSB.

Other safety issues at the ITC facility included the lack of a procedure for maintaining the mechanical integrity of the pump that failed, the lack of a system for detecting flammable gases, the inability for plant operators to remotely operate emergency isolation valves, and the poor design of the tank farm, which allowed fire to spread from one tank to the next.

For more information, refer to the CSB news release or read the agency’s report (PDF).