A fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park raged for days. Photo: Mark Nguyen.

What did Texas do about Houston's rash of chemical fires? Not much.

May 24th, 2019

A fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park raged for days. Photo: Mark Nguyen.

  • By Michael Coleman

If you’re wondering what the 86th Texas Legislature did to help prevent dangerous and persistent fires in the petrochemical corridor near Houston this year, the answer — unfortunately — is not much.

Lawmakers did hold a couple of hearings to take testimony about the fires, but they failed to take any significant direct action to address underlying causes of the danger. This is despite the fact that frightening, and in one case deadly, evidence of a systemic problem in the Houston area flared up in both March and April.

To recap: A fire ignited at the Exxon Mobil plant in Baytown on March 16. A day later, another fire broke out at the Intercontinental Terminals Company petrochemical storage facility in Deer Park.

This blaze raged for days, casting a massive plume of dark smoke over the region and forcing the entire city to shelter in place. Traffic in the Houston Ship Channel halted for nearly a week, causing an estimated $1 billion in economic losses.

On April 2, a chemical tank at the KMCO plant in Crosby ignited, once again sending a toxic plume of smoke into the air. This time the fire proved fatal. One KMCO plant worker died and 10 others were injured.

One might think three chemical fires in two weeks would prompt urgent bipartisan action by the Texas Legislature, but that is not the case.

The Legislature did hold two hearings — one on April 4 and another on April 5 — to hear from state and local environmental officials, but not affected members of the public. With Houston residents shut out from testifying at the April 5 hearing, Public Citizen, Air Alliance Houston, Environmental Defense Fund and several community activists staged a news conference at the Texas Capitol on the same day. The event received significant media attention statewide, ensuring that community voices were heard.

During both hearings, Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, admitted that his agency lacks the authority to regulate above-the-ground petroleum storage tanks.

Environmental advocates were already supporting Sen. Nathan Johnson’s SB 1446 that would grant TCEQ the authority to develop best practices for these tanks. Before these disasters, SB 1446 was dead on arrival. Once it became apparent that TCEQ needed authority over storage tanks, advocates began pushing for a hearing on the bill.

After considerable pressure was applied to the Senate Water and Rural Affairs Committee and its chair, Sen. Charles Perry, the bill finally got a hearing on April 29. Though this hearing did not lead to the bill’s passage out of committee, Chairman Perry stated repeatedly that an interim charge — or special legislative action post-session — is needed on the issue of above ground storage tanks. This commitment would not have happened without the advocacy of numerous Texas environmental groups.

Coleman is the communications strategist for Public Citizen’s Texas office. A former Washington correspondent for the Albuquerque Journal, Coleman has written and reported on environmental and energy policy in the West since 2000. He lives in South Austin with his wife and daughter.

Take Action

  1. See how the chemical fires affected one Houston-area student
  2. Learn about some of TCEQ's worst decisions
  3. Share this story on social media with the hashtag #OurSharedHou

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