“The black stuff floating, don’t touch it,” Troy Monk, the director of health, safety and security for the Texas Petroleum Chemical Group in Port Neches, said. “You don’t want to be downwind from this.”
Port Neches residents had just survived two explosions at the TPC plant in their community. As the fire burned, they posted frightening photos and videos taken from the front steps of their homes, windows blown out by the propulsive force of the first explosion at 1 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving.
Three workers had been hospitalized, five residents injured by shards of glass. As many as 50,000 had been forced to evacuate. Now, they were hearing warnings that the very air might be unsafe. News stories were reporting something about cancer-causing butadiene, something else about asbestos.
“You don’t want to be downwind from this,” Monk said. But what choice did TPC give Port Neches, Groves, Nederland and Port Arthur?
“This” was at least the fifth petrochemical disaster — with ITC in Deer Park, KMCO in Crosby and ExxonMobil in Baytown, twice — this year in the region. Quickly, many observers drew a link from TPC to President Trump’s recent gutting of the Chemical Disaster Rule. That link is difficult to establish without knowing what caused the Port Neches explosions, but the rule, enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration after the deadly explosions in West, Texas, in 2013, was designed to prevent exactly this.
The Trump EPA’s gutting of regulations meant that industry was never required to implement important protections for public safety, such as third-party audits of safety plans, root-cause analyses of disasters and anonymous reporting of safety violations. Now, companies such as TPC no longer have to inform communities or first-responders about the chemicals they have on site.
In the last decade, Texas has played host to the United States’ return to global energy dominance. The petrochemical industry is flourishing everywhere from the Permian Basin to the Gulf Coast. But as industry profits have soared, Texas has cut funding for environmental agencies. In fact, only one state has cut more funding than Texas. A report released this week by the Environmental Integrity Project found that, adjusted for inflation, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has faced — during this same decade of industrial expansion, the decade with disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and Imelda made that much more destructive by climate change — a 35 percent budget cut, even as total state spending has climbed 41 percent.
Meanwhile, the EPA has considered the TPC plant a “high-priority violator” every quarter for the last three years. And EPA data show that the plant has an unresolved violation from as far back as 2004. Right now, TCEQ is juggling several pending enforcement actions against TPC for previous violations of environmental laws. But the fines TCEQ levied this year to TPC were for just $41,191, $13,688 and $7,500, and the agency agreed to defer one-third of the amount. Companies know that TCEQ and EPA will not hold them accountable. They know there can be an economic benefit for noncompliance with permits. The industry-friendly approach behind the state’s enforcement regime is simply not enough to prevent the disasters that threaten our lives, livelihoods and health.
These disasters are preventable. Prevention requires more frequent inspections, stronger permits, improved air monitoring and more stringent enforcement. But with a federal agency that guts rules designed to promote safety and a state agency with a plummeting budget, who will take the lead?
There is reason for optimism. Last week, in a moment of introspection, TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker acknowledged the “unacceptable trend” in the region. TCEQ recently received a one-time infusion of $947,500 to pay for mobile air monitoring resources to focus on industrial pollution. This time, within days of the explosions, TCEQ was posting air quality data to its website and sharing information on a specially created one. That was an encouraging step, but both sites lacked information the public could use to take action. In fact, the Port Neches Response site posted an update claiming there were “no human health concerns” — very different from Monk’s warnings.
Jefferson County ranks fifth among Texas counties for the number of stationary sources of air pollution. Right now, the county lacks the infrastructure for environmental monitoring and enforcement. The TPC explosions could serve as the impetus for the county and other local jurisdictions to take a more active role. They will find inspiration in their neighbors in Harris County, including District Attorney Kim Ogg and Judge Lina Hidalgo. Ogg is aggressively pursuing violators of environmental laws, and Judge Hidalgo has taken a hard look at county operations, investing millions after an analysis after the ITC fire in March 2019 found gaps in the county’s capacity to respond.
People in Port Neches may be giving thanks that this disaster was not worse. But Monk’s statements should serve as a reminder of the heavy physical and psychological tolls that come with them. Why do we tolerate it? Industry acknowledges it is impossible to bring the disaster rate to zero. But, as Baker said, “It is imperative that industry be accountable and held to the highest standard of compliance to ensure the safety of the state’s citizens and the protection of the environment.”
It’s his agency that could do that. Instead, Baker could say, ‘We, TCEQ, will hold industry accountable. We will hold them to the highest standard of compliance.’ Texans should not accept disasters as the cost of doing business. Texans should demand that industry and state and federal agencies make the necessary investments to protect our health and safety and stop allowing even one chemical disaster.
We should not have to live downwind of that.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
Levin is Associate Director of Environmental Integrity Project and Shelley is Director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.
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