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Houston oil spillage disaster, chemical fire sicken thousands

Cloud of cancer-causing benzene has contaminated the Houston Ship Channel, a key waterway

Houston

OIL byproducts from a damaged storage facility have contaminated the Houston Ship Channel and created a cloud of cancer-causing benzene over the waterway, the latest mutation of one of the worst Gulf Coast chemical disasters in more than a decade.

The US Coast Guard is forbidding vessel traffic on a stretch of the key industrial shipping route after a wall collapse and fire at Intercontinental Terminals Co's (ITC) already-damaged chemical storage complex on Friday. A mix of toxic gasoline ingredients, firefighting foam and dirty water flowed from the site into the channel, and a benzene plume above the water poses a threat to ship crew, said Coast Guard Capt Kevin Oditt.

The channel, which is not a source of drinking water for Houston or its suburbs, is the newest victim of a calamity that began unfolding almost a week ago when tanks holding byproducts of the oil-refining process at ITC's facility erupted in flames. A plume of black smoke towered over the fourth-largest American city for days until crew extinguished the blaze on March 20.

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That was followed by benzene alerts that shut down Deer Park and other suburbs for half a day, the collapse of a containment wall and Friday's new fires in three wrecked storage tanks and a drainage ditch.

Nausea, headaches and other symptoms drove about 1,000 people to seek treatment at a pop-up clinic, with 15 of the most-severe cases loaded onto ambulances and hauled to hospital emergency rooms.

"It's been a never-ending, recurring case of things not working out as planned," Deer Park mayor Jerry Mouton said during a media briefing on Saturday.

Weary residents are on edge, wondering what's next and when normal life will return. For many Houstonians, it's the worst industrial disaster since the 2005 explosion at BP Plc's Texas City refinery that killed 15.

"There are more tanks in there. Are they going to reignite? It's very uncertain," said Mercy Reyna, 50, who's been suffering from headaches, eye discomfort and chest tightness. "The trust is not there. We feel like we're not being told the truth of what's going on." Since the initial blaze was squelched earlier in the week, ITC made two unsuccessful attempts to drain a charred tank that's holding pygas, a petroleum derivative composed largely of benzene. Early on Friday, ITC executives estimated they would have that tank emptied in about 12 hours but then the wall failed and flames erupted nearby.

Fortification crew launched a third attempt to empty the tank around 3.30 pm local time on Saturday, the Mitsui & Co-owned company said. Executives are watching weather forecasts and wind gauges because anything that disturbs the layer of protective foam atop the chemicals could allow fires to break out and benzene to waft across the city.

"The same number of tanks need to be drained as yesterday," said Brent Weber, ITC's incident commander.

Ms Reyna and her 18-year-old daughter Rebecca had been waiting for 2½ hours at the pop-up medical centre when the new fire erupted. They left without being seen because they didn't want to get marooned there if the city ordered everyone to stay indoors.

"I was filling out the paper work inside, and my eyes were running and running with tears," she said. "It was just that desperation of wanting to get your eyes out and just rub them and rinse them and put them back. It's just that burning sensation." Although the company said Friday that there were about 60,000 barrels of hazardous chemicals still held in the damaged section of its complex, by Saturday morning, it no longer knew how many remained. Meanwhile, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he'll file a lawsuit accusing ITC of violating clean-air laws.

The ship channel is one of the busiest commercial shipping facilities in North America, connecting Houston's manufacturing and oil-refining nexus to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It remained closed on Saturday.

The US Chemical Safety Board announced late Thursday it will be investigating the blaze. The Texas National Guard dispatched troops to assist local authorities with air monitoring after cancer-causing benzene wafted across the area, prompting take-shelter alerts and road closures. BLOOMBERG