CSB Board Unanimously Finds Inadequate Fire Detection and Protection Systems Led to May 1st Disaster at Houston Area Third Coast Plant

March 6, 2003

(Houston, TX - March 6, 2003) Better fire protection systems could have suppressed the huge fire that swept through the Third Coast Industries facility south of the city last year, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has found in a report approved unanimously today at a CSB public meeting in Houston.

Speaking at the conclusion of the meeting, CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt said, "Fortunately, the fire at Third Coast last May didn't result in any deaths or injuries. But the impact was significant, and the magnitude of the fire should be a wake-up call to all those who handle combustible liquids or regulate their hazards. Under the right conditions, combustible liquids like motor oil can burn rapidly and cause tremendous damage. Proper safeguards - including adequate local fire codes -- are essential."

The fire, which broke out in the early morning hours of May 1, 2002, destroyed the facility near Pearland in a blaze that consumed 1.2 million gallons of combustible and flammable liquids and lasted for more than 24 hours. Approximately 100 nearby residents were evacuated from their homes while the fire was allowed to burn itself out. The plant had no supply of fire water to aid firefighters.

Third Coast blended and packaged motor oils, hydraulic oils, and other lubricants and employed about 100 people at the destroyed facility. Although the facility was never rebuilt, Third Coast continues to operate another facility within the city of Pearland.

The almost total destruction of the facility prevented a conclusive determination of the origin of what started as a small fire outside Warehouse #1. Most of the investigation focused on why the fire spread so quickly to engulf the many petroleum storage tanks and drums throughout the plant.

Existing fire codes provide for smoke and heat detectors, alarms, sprinklers, firewalls, and supplies of fire water - all measures that could have helped arrest the blaze. Many jurisdictions require adherence to a fire code. However, the Third Coast facility, located in unincorporated Brazoria County, was not governed by any mandatory local code and did not voluntarily follow accepted fire protection standards.

Lead investigator David Heller stated, "There is no evidence that Third Coast or its insurance company had conducted any formal fire protection analyses or consulted with any outside fire protection experts - nor did Third Coast follow recommended best-practice guidance, such as the standards of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Better fire control systems could have spared the plant from total destruction and minimized the impact on nearby residents and businesses."

The staff report adopted today by the five-member CSB Board makes several recommendations to Third Coast and others to prevent such severe damage at similar facilities in the future.

Leading the recommendations is a call for Brazoria County to adopt a county-wide fire code. The report also recommends that Third Coast audit its remaining facility in Pearland, Third Coast Terminals, to ensure that it meets current fire suppression and control requirements. The report calls for improvements to national and international fire codes related to certain combustible liquids and notes that federal regulations covering combustible liquids also need updating.

The CSB is an independent federal agency whose mission is to prevent industrial chemical accidents and save lives. The CSB investigates accidents and hazards, determines root causes and issues safety recommendations to industry, labor, and other organizations. For information about the CSB, visit our web site at www.csb.gov .

For more information, contact Sandy Gilmour Communications, (202) 251-5496 (cell).

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