Lack of restrictions make Houston residents, hazardous industries uneasy neighbors


The Diosdado sisters’ top priority when hunting for their first homes 15 years ago was to live close enough that their kids could grow up together.

Amelia and Maria found a quiet street in northwest Houston where many fellow immigrants from Mexico also had settled. Eventually, a third sister moved there, too.

None of them knew the business across the street, Watson Grinding & Manufacturing, contained a massive tank of highly flammable propylene that investigators now say may have been involved in the early-morning explosion that killed two people and rocked the Diosdados’ neighborhood, shattering windows, caving in roofs and rendering dozens of homes uninhabitable. Authorities say the catastrophic blast appeared have been triggered by a propylene leak and an electrical discharge.

“I wish I had known what was around me before buying the house,” Amelia Diosdado said.

Considering the blast rattled windows in homes halfway across town, the Diosdado sisters surely are not the only Houston residents wondering what sits inside the nearest warehouse. The question now confronting local officials and the citizens they serve is, What can be done about it?

Ideas floated by local officials and environmental experts include requiring companies to disclose more information about the chemicals they use, ramping up inspections, perhaps even limiting what can be built near existing industrial sites, though advocates say lax state enforcement of environmental laws remains a hurdle.

1. Facility: ITC- Deer Park Date: 7-Mar-19 Description: Fire burned for three days, destroying 11 of 15 storage tanks 2. Facility: ExxonMobil Date: 16-Mar-19 Description: Fire sent smoke plume miles away. Site released toxic air pollutants for eight days. 3. Facility: KMCO Date: 2-Apr-19 Description: One person was killed and more than 30 injured after an explosion at the plant. 4. Facility: ExxonMobil Date: 31-Jul-19 Description: Chemical fire injured at least 37 people. 5. Facility: TPC Group- Port Neches Date: Nov. 27, 2019 Description: Massive chemical explosion, injuring three workers and causing widespread property damage.

Harris County is home to thousands of facilities capable of putting their neighbors’ health at risk, either through typical operations — such as the dust generated by concrete crushing plants — or when something goes wrong at a business using dangerous chemicals.

Those risks are particularly acute in Houston, the nation’s largest city without zoning laws that would better separate industrial facilities from homes and neighborhoods. The region has seen at least six major chemical fires since last March, incidents that killed three workers, injured dozens, exposed thousands to pollutants and, in the case of the Watson Grinding blast, may cost dozens of residents their homes.

“The broader umbrella of all these facilities is land use, and our failure as a city to recognize, accept and act to protect communities from the dangers of hazardous facilities in communities,” said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “Zoning or some form of land use policy that addresses the issue of industrial land uses near people and places they shouldn’t be, that’s a longer-term conversation. In the short term, we need to get a handle on what the hell everybody is living next to.”

Zoning would not be a cure-all, Nelson added. Enacting it would not only be a political fight — voters rejected it in 1948, 1962 and 1993, embracing the view that Houston’s free-wheeling ethos has driven its success — but it would also have a muted effect because existing facilities would be grandfathered.

“Houston is built already,” said Council Member Amy Peck, who represents the area around Watson Grinding. “In District A, there are so many industrial pockets. To remove all of those industrial areas would be very, very difficult at this point, so we have to find other ways of keeping people safe.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he will convene a discussion to address “what more should be done to protect the people in our city when we have both residents and businesses coexisting in the same space.” The aim, he said, would be to produce a plan this year.

“There will be a very thoughtful, deliberative, methodical conversation about how to design and construct the city as we go forward,” he said. “Otherwise, these incidents will just keep happening, which is unacceptable.”

Little progress

This is not the first time city leaders have reacted to an industrial explosion or inferno by promising to grapple with the risks posed by hazardous facilities.

After a 1995 warehouse fire in the Pleasantville neighborhood sent thick smoke thousands of feet into the sky and drove residents from their homes, then-mayor Bob Lanier ordered that warehouses must publicly disclose their contents, the city launched its first database for hazmat permits, and the Houston Fire Department said it would ramp up warehouse inspections.

The city council created a Committee on Environmental Standards, required businesses to post warning signs about their chemicals, and barred new hazmat facilities from opening within 1,000 feet of homes and schools.

By the time a raging chemical warehouse fire in Spring Branch sparked several explosions and sent black plumes of smoke into the air in 2016, the environmental committee was defunct, the city had fined no businesses for failing to post warning signs, and the order on warehouse disclosures had been rescinded.

The city had no idea where most hazardous chemicals were. Less than a quarter of hazmat facilities with permits were inspected. Firefighters were not regularly visiting businesses to plan for emergencies. And, when they did, the department was still logging that information in paper binders.

Turner, then in his first year as mayor, said the city would improve its oversight of hazmat facilities, calling for more inspections and for HFD to improve its internal processes. A year later, Fire Chief Sam Peña said his staff still lacked the resources needed to properly police chemical stockpiles, saying, “there are a lot of needs, a lot of gaps.”

The department has made progress since then, Executive Assistant Chief Richard Mann said, hiring two more hazardous material inspectors and loading inspections into a digital database that code enforcement teams in several city departments can access. Starting this month, firefighters will be able to access those inspections from a computer tablet in each fire engine.

After the 2016 Custom Packaging and Filling Co. warehouse fire in Spring Branch, the city pulled a list of more than 5,000 businesses that potentially needed hazardous material permits. Site visits and inspections narrowed the list to about 170 facilities. Mann said HFD now inspects those facilities — along with large chemical warehouses — annually.

Still, Mann said the risks posed by industrial facilities extend beyond those sites, noting there is no evidence that Watson Grinding, for instance, was required to have a hazmat permit.

Houston is home to numerous facilities that could harm their neighbors despite not storing “hazardous materials,” he said — including 516 compressed flammable gas facilities, 2,000 “hot work” facilities, and 3,300 flammable and combustible liquid facilities.

“It just takes one of those to potentially be dangerous,” Mann said.

Public in the dark

Turner this week declined to list specific reforms he wants to pursue, but he and Peña floated the idea of requiring companies to disclose more information about the materials they have on site than is required under existing law.

Businesses with more than specified amounts of various chemicals must disclose their inventories to a number of government agencies. The mayor and chief suggested dropping the thresholds at which disclosure is required.

The public generally is in the dark about those inventories, however, despite federal laws meant to ensure communities know the hazards they may face. The Texas Attorney General’s office has told local fire departments they do not have to make chemical inventories public, citing a state law that restricts information that could be useful to terrorists.

The attorney general’s position does not require local governments to block the records from release, though Peña declined to make Watson’s inventory form available this week, saying, “Those are conversations that need to happen at the state level.”

Those are not the only discussions that must happen in Austin if the Houston area’s industrial facilities are to pose a lower risk to residents, environmental advocates said.

Consider former mayor Bill White’s push to improve the region’s air quality by targeting polluters. The city council in 2007 passed an ordinance barring concrete crushing plants from opening near homes, schools and churches, and another that forced large polluting facilities to register with the city and pay fees that were to fund inspections at the sites.

In both cases, industry groups sued the city and won, with judges tossing out both measures on the grounds that state law preempted city regulations.

The Harris County Attorney’s office routinely confronts that preemption challenge. For example, cities and counties suing to levy civil penalties against violators of the Clean Air Act must give state officials the ability to claim jurisdiction and decide what punishment — if any — is appropriate.

Rock Owens, the county attorney’s special assistant for environmental matters, has been seeking injunctions to force companies to comply with environmental laws rather than civil penalties to avoid having to get the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s permission, and has begun using flood plain regulations to target violators.

“More often than not, the state is not there as our partner, but is there as our opponent and as an advocate for the industry,” Owens said, “so local governments have to be innovative and come up with creative solutions.”

Enforcement key, advocates say

Old-fashioned grass-roots campaigning appeared to work twice this month, when firms proposing to add concrete crushing plants in the Acres Homes and Aldine areas abandoned their plans in the face of intense pushback from local leaders. State rules likely would have allowed the companies to secure the necessary permits had they continued to seek them.

“For most of this, even if TCEQ just got out of the way, that’s helpful,” said Victor Flatt, an environmental law professor at the University of Houston.

Asked to address criticism of TCEQ’s approach to enforcement and its role after the Watson incident, agency spokesman Andrew Keese provided a written statement that discussed chemical inventory reports and the agency’s oversight of the Watson cleanup.

Advocates stressed, however, that the city and county can lessen the risk posed by industrial facilities without state help.

Houston could prevent new homes from being built next to existing polluters or hazardous facilities, Nelson, of Air Alliance Houston said, noting that many homes damaged by the Watson explosion were built after the facility began operating. Even if local governments are unable to dictate where hazardous facilities locate, she added, officials could try to entice firms to avoid residential areas voluntarily, such as by offering expedited permitting.

Above all, Environmental Defense Fund senior director Elena Craft said, local governments’ best defense would be more frequent inspections of potentially dangerous facilities.

“Many of these incidents are not preordained,” Craft said. “A lot of these facilities where we’ve seen these major incidents, there’s been a rap sheet of violations. What did you think was going to happen after this five-year period of not fixing the same equipment over and over again?”

Near the Watson site, the Diosdados are among dozens of families weighing whether to rebuild or start over elsewhere.

“We haven’t even thought about it. I really like living there, I like my neighbors,” Amelia Diosdado said.

What if Watson reopens? “We’ll think twice about it.”

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