Beef fat spill tests port's response plans

Monday, January 10, 2011

HOUSTON—Emergency plans should include a variety of scenarios, but as security professionals know, you can’t plan for everything. The Port of Houston found this out on Jan. 4 when a 300,000-gallon tank filled with animal fat broke open, leaking an estimated 15,000 gallons of beef fat into the Houston Ship Channel.

Bill Crews, port security and emergency operations manager for the Port of Houston Authority, said that maintenance was being performed on a storage tank owned by agricultural company Jacob Sterns and Sons when a worker, who had been told the tank was empty, removed a cover of the tank near the bottom. As it turns out, the tank was full and when the worker removed some of the bolts the pressure from the tank caused the fat to explode out of the tank, which partially imploded due to the extreme pressure. While a berm surrounding the tank captured the majority of the 250,000 gallons of liquid, approximately 15,000 gallons entered a storm drain and leaked into the ship channel.

Crews said that while his department was not directly involved in the response to the spill, they were immediately notified of the event. “We have protocol we follow that’s part of our situational awareness software package that we run, [Nice’s] Situator, and there’s a notification tree that is executed by the dispatcher when there’s a spill. It doesn’t matter what kind of spill it is,” Crews said.

Developing emergency response plans is the responsibility of the individual tenant, said Crews. “It’s not on the scale of something that was toxic, but they sure need emergency plans to deal with any spill,” he said. Fortunately, the spill occurred near the end of the channel and didn’t disrupt port operations, although the U.S. Coast Guard was closely monitoring the movement of the substance, which consequently coagulated into a solid after the liquid hit the cold water. Fortunately the substance wasn’t toxic and isn’t expected to have any long-term impacts on the port, but “it was nasty,” said Crews.