Fires in Texas Spark Interest in Chemical Safety

April 9, 2019 | 1:46 pm
Anthony Gutierrez
Former contributor

Watching the news last week as clouds of thick black smoke billowed over Houston, I worried about my family. They are surrounded by chemical plants. Hearing state and local officials saying there is no air quality issue, and then ordering everyone to “shelter in place” terrified me. In truth, the monitors either weren’t working or were under maintenance, and there didn’t seem to be an evacuation plan. Why not? The law requires one.

In the past month, there have been at least two major chemical fires or explosions at EPA Risk Management Plan (RMP) facilities. The Union of Concerned Scientists has been extensively writing on the RMP rule and its provisions and participated in the victorious court case that required the EPA to implement the Obama era rule.

RMP standards are aimed to provide additional information to communities surrounding facilities, require facilities to coordinate with first responders on emergency evacuation plans in case of an emergency, and to research safer technology alternatives that may make their facility less prone to catastrophic incidents.

Despite these important provisions, the Trump Administration has moved forward with rolling back this rule and in doing so, they have proposed to “remove all preventative measures.”  What is a risk management plan if it doesn’t lower risks? The final rule is being finalized now, and we expect with the concerns we had over the proposed rule that this final rule will weaken standards. The two major chemical fires and explosions this month should demonstrate to the EPA that implementing the RMP protections are the least they could do for environmental justice communities, first responders, and workers to protect their public health and safety.

The KMCO plant explosion in Crosby, Texas occurred on April 2nd at the chemical manufacturing facility when isobutylene ignited. This facility was no stranger to incidents, its past explosion occurred in 2010 causing worker injuries and a worker death. The facility has been cited for lacking an appropriate emergency action plan, benzene leaks, and lack of monitoring. This time around, the explosion killed one and injured two others. Communities surrounding this facility are still seeking information from TCEQ and the facility directly on potential health hazards and air quality monitoring in the wake of the explosion.

The Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) fire in Deer Park, Texas on March 17th burned for days and once the fires from the various containers were put out, a new shelter in place order for two additional days was issued due to excessive benzene levels detected. Congressional members representing sections of the Houston area came together to call on TCEQ to provide more information on the air monitoring and information sharing after this fire.

Unfortunately, explosions like these add insult to injury for many communities. People living near petrochemical facilities like these already face disproportionate exposure to toxic emissions from the facilities on a regular basis, in addition to other nearby sources of air pollution, like increased truck traffic around the facility and other industrial and transportation-related pollution and stressors. Preventable chemical disasters only add to the burden faced by these communities on a daily basis.

Yvette Arellano from the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.), an environmental justice group working on the ground in Manchester and Greater Houston Area, stated “While regulatory agencies protect these facilities from acts of terrorism, who protects us from these facilities which terrorize us on a daily basis? The simple daily acts of life from brushing our teeth in the morning to going to sleep are made traumatic by these events, and the ITC disaster is yet to be over. We never asked to live a life in which we are scared of being at home, forced to live with plastic on the windows and doors, with no ventilation in a city where temperatures regularly skyrocket to over 100. We are suffering out of sight, made silent, and forced into the shadows-living under dark clouds, not of our making. This is not just, it is not freedom or liberty this is an act of terror on our lives.”

I wish I could be clinical and detached from this issue, but I can’t. My family lives in one of the largest concentrations of these RMP facilities outside of Houston, Texas. Every time I hear about another incident I think of my nieces and nephew and whether they were outside at school when this happened. I worried about them while they were locked in their homes in a shelter in place during the ITC fire and subsequent benzene leak. Like all young children, they deserve to be free to run outside without fear of a chemical cloud keeping them indoors.

These incidents at chemical facilities in Texas are unfortunately perfect examples of why the Risk Management Plan standards should not only be maintained by the Trump Administration but should also be strengthened during this rulemaking process. Congress should hold the EPA accountable and call on them to issue a strengthened RMP rule that provides the communities outside of these facilities better access to information regarding the chemicals on-site, better coordination with first responders to create better safety plans that aren’t limited to shelter in place.

Chemical facilities need oversight and high standards for safety in order to protect environmental justice communities, first responders, and workers. Companies should be held accountable, particularly those with multiple incidents and fines like the two facilities above. They need to be willing to more readily share information with communities so families like mine can make the best decision in case of a fire or explosion and need to take strong measures to reduce the risk of these incidents happening in the future.