sanjacintoelementary KTRK-TV
Smoke plumes from a chemical fire billow behind San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park.

Air quality concerns keep many Houston-area districts closed

Following a chemical plant fire in Deer Park, Texas, that burned for four days, health officials have detected elevated levels of benzene in the area.

Students at several school districts in the Houston area have been told to stay home for another day because of concerns about toxins in the air in the aftermath of a chemical fire in Deer Park, Texas.

KTRK-TV reports that the risks of elevated benzene levels in the air, stemming from this week's fire at the International Terminals Company chemical plant in Deer Park, have persuaded officials with a numbers of school systems to cancel classes again on Friday.

"[W]hile the situation has improved somewhat [Thursday], it could change [Friday]," Deer Park School Superintendent Victor White said in a message to parents. "Student safety is our highest priority, and we simply want to avoid a situation where another shelter in place might be called as children are arriving at or leaving school."

In addition to Deer Park, several districts that canceled classes Thursday have decided to remain closed on Friday: Channelview, Galena Park, La Porte, Pasadena and Sheldon. The Goose Creek district, which held classes on Thursday, cancelled school on Friday.

San Jacinto College, with campuses in Pasadena, La Porte and Houston, also canceled classes on Friday, as has Texas Chiropractic College in Pasadena.

EARLIER: Several school districts in the Houston area canceled classes Thursday because of concerns about air quality in the aftermath of a fire at a chemical plant in Deer Park, Texas.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the school systems decided to close for the day after the city of Deer Park issued a shelter-in-place alert Thursday morning for residents when elevated benzene levels at at the International Terminals Company, site of the fire.

Among the districts that canceled classes: Deer Park, Channelview, Pasadena, La Porte, Sheldon, and Galena Park. In addition, all San Jacinto College campuses have been closed.

Later Thursday, Deer Park lifted the shelter-in-place order after tests showed lower levels of benzene in the air. 

"According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Harris County HAZMAT teams and a private contractor on site at International Terminals Company...air quality readings are improving, and over the last few hours, they have been significantly reduced," says Harris Coounty Emergency Services Director Robert Hemminger.

The fire began on Sunday in a chemical storage facility and created a miles-long plume of black smoke in the sky. The flames were extinguished on Wednesday.

The Deer Park district canceled school on Monday, but resumed classes on Tuesday when air-quality reports were more favorable. But because of shifting winds and renewed concerned about air quality, the district canceled classes Wednesday and Thursday.

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