Houston fires renew safety debate in oil-friendly Texas

Two major chemical plant fires near Houston just 17 days apart closed schools, leaked toxic chemicals into coastal waters and killed a worker, but there's a good chance they won't lead to big industry crackdowns in oil-friendly Texas.

Federal investigators have yet to announce what caused either fire — the first in March that triggered shelter-in-place warnings amid elevated levels of benzene in the air and a second this week that left one worker dead and two others critically injured.

The blazes sent plumes of ominous black smoke billowing into the sky and drew widespread attention, but there are already signs that any new safeguards will be slow in coming, if they come at all. The fires haven't slowed the progress of industry-backed bills that would, in the view of environmental groups, give oil producers paths to easier permitting and weaker enforcement. There were also proposals to siphon money from clean-air programs just days after the first fire triggered an air quality warning.

Meanwhile, long-shot proposals by Democrats to slap plants with tougher fines appear all but dead this year, while another that would set new rules for above-ground storage tanks has also languished.

Local officials say tougher state penalties would be a good start to deterring more accidents.

"I would hope that if one thing we take away from this is that we need to look at the enforcement scheme and process the state uses to make sure they mean something," said Rock Owens, the managing environmental attorney for Harris County, who testified Thursday during the first legislative hearing about the fires.

New lawsuits his office filed against Intercontinental Terminals Co. and KMCO — where the fires occurred — amount to the third time each operator has been sued by Harris County in the past decade. Some resulted in penalties of $25,000 per day and per violation, the maximum amount under state limits that were last raised in 2011.

"It just hasn't been enough to get people to stop doing what they need to stop doing," Owens said.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board and other agencies are investigating the fires . The first produced a plume of smoke that could be seen for miles and burned for days. Schools closed over air quality warnings and petrochemicals from the tanks seeped into nearby bayous and the Houston Ship Channel after a dike adjacent to the facility failed.

The second fire happened after a tank at a KMCO chemical plant in Crosby that was holding a flammable chemical caught fire and burned for more than 5 hours before it was extinguished.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Friday that the city will roll out an alert system that would notify residents of emergencies, including air quality warnings.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued the plants over allegations that they violated the Texas Clean Air Act, a move welcomed by both Democrats and environmental groups. State environmental officials would get more money under a tentative budget plan.

But attempts to tighten industry regulations generally fail in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

"I don't know that I have concerns about the industry necessarily," said Republican state Rep. Ed Thompson, the vice chairman of the House environmental regulation committee. "I think what we really need to get our arms around is what we're doing as a state, in terms of inspection of these facilities and making sure that they're operating in the proper way. Accidents do occur."

After a fertilizer plant near Waco exploded in 2013 and killed 15 people, Texas strengthened some rules for storing ammonium nitrate and gave more authority to the state fire marshal. But some lawmakers viewed the changes as insufficient after some recommendations, such as requiring sprinkler systems, were excluded over concerns that they would be too burdensome on business.

"When it's a major headline-grabbing incident, the state will usually take some sort of action but it's usually pretty narrow in addressing the fundamental problems we're seeing," said Luke Metzger, executive director of the advocacy group Environment Texas. "My fear is that after this fades from the headlines, the state will go back to business as usual."


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