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K-Solv Chemical Fire


During the K-Solv fire, which lasted more than two hours on Wednesday, more than 40 air pollutants were reported, according to a preliminary list provided by environmental advocates, highlighting the continuing danger that communities near industrial sites face daily.

"Pollution isn't usually as noticeable as it was during this event," Air Alliance Houston's Corey Williams said. "However, I believe that the systemic exposure hazards that exist every day at the interface between these facilities and communities are more concerning than these one-time events."

According to Grace Tee Lewis of the Environmental Defense Fund, some of the chemicals that burned or were emitted were recognized as hazardous air contaminants. The risk is proportional to the duration and severity of the exposure. (A shelter-in-place order was given as a precaution; air monitoring by the county and state found no reason for concern.)

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality received the company's preliminary estimate of released pollutants. According to the study, the fire was caused by the transfer of a toluene and naphtha mixture to a container, but the Harris County Fire Marshal is still looking into it.

What exactly is K-Solv?

Although the company includes a variety of chemicals, it is primarily a distribution facility.

The following is taken from a video transcript:

There are a few things we know about this business. They have two corporate offices: one on the west side, on the Katy Freeway, and the other in the ship channel district, where this fire is currently burning. Based on what we've seen so far, it seems that this is a temporary facility. There isn't a lot of stuff made here. They accept chemicals and, more than likely, ship chemicals.

The problem with that, Art and Ilona, is that when we see a fire like this one burning, as you can see from sky-high right now, we don't always know what the chemical mix is in this fire. The bigger problem is that firefighters do not know the chemical mix because there is no real-time reporting on what companies like this have on site.

They must report their inventory once a year, but a facility like this one, which has tanks that carry some material and then tanks that ship to offshore facilities, does not have to tell people what they have on-site every day. It would be inconvenient, but it would be instrumental in this situation.

And I'm not sure how many Houstonians I speak for when I say that we see those massive plumes of black smoke rising into the air over our skyline much too often to think, "Oh, something needs to change here, because look at this."

If we move closer to real-time news, we've all been told that governments want to be able to say to people who live near these factories or who live miles away but see the black smoke over their homes or children's schools, whether their air is clean or not. We are unaware of any evacuation orders at this time.

But take a look at this—this is real-time news from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Take a glance around. The most recent collection of data—which would be excellent if it arrived in real-time—was published at 2:00 p.m. Keep an eye on your wristwatch. That was nearly three and a half hours ago, and it's irrelevant for this reason.

When we look at what Harris County is doing, we can see that they have set up their real-time pollution monitoring system with many resources. They can tell us a fire in Channelview, but they haven't set up any monitoring yet. And, guys, this is a massive issue for people who live, work, or drive in the place where the fire is burning because we can't check what's going on ourselves.

They have to take the word of people on a scene or who aren't even on the scene that it's healthy, which is a real problem when we see smoke as explosive as this and don't know what's in it. And it's been going on for at least an hour now.

- Particularly dangerous for us here in Houston, the oil capital, the petroleum capital of the entire world, where more businesses, both directly and indirectly, are based. And you have companies like this that are chemical-based, petroleum-based, that have a long list of chemicals, so you never know what they're burning or what's going on that day, as you say.

- Not only do we have no idea. There seems to be no rush to include that in the list of specifications. One thing to remember about the organization is that they do, ironically, own a disaster management response agency, although a relatively well-known one, as we've seen in many of these industrial fires. But you'd have to think that this company is one of the businesses that would be well-suited to respond to anything like this.

- And, when you think about it— you mentioned it— it's just bothersome. We're concerned because it's now in the air we're breathing. But, as you said, consider the firefighters. Consider the hazmat teams who are attempting to determine whether or not they should even be placing water on these various compounds, as well as how to combat it.

And there— they're right there on the front lines, you know. They'll have to get up close and personal with these flames and smoke. And they've got their gear on, but with what might be burning in— in some of those fires, that's no guarantee.

- You're right. Ilona, you make an excellent case. I think it's important to note for those first responders that they know which way the wind is blowing, and they're all upwind. There are no firefighters in the smoke plume. That isn't by chance. That's on purpose. They are well aware of their surroundings.

The issue is that the smoke plume is heading north and northeast, through agricultural areas, but not too far away, or some suburban areas, at least in the vicinity of this plant. Our crews won't be able to reach them because they're too close. However, you have to assume that there are several people around at this time.

Yes, I agree. And it's fair to assume that a fire like this, with that black smoke, petroleum-based chemical, is dangerous in some way because of the way it's burning. The problem is that we don't know what we're breathing.

We don't have any. We usually hear from the industry that a couple of things, such as elevation and dilution, can help, and we know about the wind—you can tell from how quickly the smoke plume moves. The smoke is being lifted by the wind, which is blowing reasonably hard. As a result, it isn't hovering on the ground. But I'm not sure if living nearby would provide enough comfort.

- Indeed, it will provide you with a great deal of relief.

- Of course, in a case like this, we'd like more details so that we can make our own decisions. And, Ted, we appreciate you looking into the business and the situation as it currently stands.

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