After the explosion at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing on January 24, 2020, in Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said, “We just have to have a serious conversation” about the threat of industry to our health and safety.
This is the sixth chemical fire in less than a year in the region. Scattering debris “across half a mile,” the Houston Chronicle reports, the 4:30 a.m. ignition of a leaking 2,000-gallon tank of propylene, a chemical used to make plastic films and fibers, killed two people and damaged more than 450 buildings.
“Enough is enough,” says Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health with the Environmental Defense Fund. “Government at all levels must act, and that starts by holding industry accountable and strengthening safeguards.”
Now, as dozens of lawsuits alleging wrongful death, negligence and other damages are being filed, the shape of that “serious conversation” is emerging, even while debris remains. Raj Mankad, editor and member of Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, writes, “This region must rethink the bargain we make with industry.”
What might that look like? For Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, it would lead to addressing the decisions about the way the city was developed in the absence of zoning that have led to environmental injustice.
And in the meantime, Nelson says, “we need to get a handle on what the hell everybody is living next to.”
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, the Houston Chronicle reports.
That will take much better coordination between local leaders, the state and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, from everything to knowing what chemicals — and how much of them — are stored at these facilities to deciding how to hold the facilities accountable for violations, says Rock Owens, an attorney focusing on environmental issues with Harris County. “More often than not,” he says, “the state is there as our opponent and as an advocate for the industry.”
More frequent inspections of those thousands of facilities that threaten us could happen now, Craft says. Many of these facilities have “a rap sheet of violations” going back years. “What did you think was going to happen after [five years] of not fixing the same equipment over and over again?”
But as the “serious conversation” about preventing a seventh explosion begins, victims of this disaster must now pick up the pieces. One says, “I wish I had known what was around me before buying the house.”
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