These Texans Are Sick of Chemical Fires and Toxic Spills in Their Backyard

A community along the Houston Ship Channel ramps up its fight against heavy industry and lax oversight after another petrochemical factory blaze closes local schools and causes a spike in respiratory illness.

Smoke rising from a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, Texas

Credit: David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Marcelys Perez was driving her son to school when she saw the morning sky darken. She thought rain was on the way. But by that afternoon, she knew the gray-black clouds billowing over her working-class Houston neighborhood of Magnolia Park signaled something much more ominous.

By then, her son was sneezing bloody mucus. “I got really scared and wiped his nose,” Perez says in Spanish. Later that day, representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) came by her home, pulled out some monitors, and declared the air perfectly safe.

Perez knew better. “I had high anxiety,” she says, “and my son was scared to go to sleep.”

On the morning of March 17, flames engulfed a petrochemical storage facility in the nearby city of Deer Park, on the banks of the Houston Ship Channel. The burning storage tanks were owned by the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC), a longtime Deer Park operation with numerous clean air and water violations dating back years.

The conflagration burned for several days, releasing a chemical cocktail into the air. The mixture included copious amounts of benzene, a gasoline ingredient that, when inhaled at high levels, can cause headaches, nausea, and even cancer. Ultimately, the gray-black plume prompted school closures and shelter-in-place advisories. By week’s end, a containment dike around the facility’s tank farm had ruptured, spilling more chemicals into the surrounding water and prompting authorities to close seven miles of the shipping channel.

On April 2, another fire erupted at a KMCO chemical plant in the community of Crosby, also on the outskirts of Houston, leaving one worker dead and two injured.

If these back-to-back catastrophes have any silver lining, it’s that they’ve intensified community efforts to challenge laissez-faire regulatory attitudes in Texas. Still, as residents and activists work to uproot the status quo, no one underestimates the task ahead.

A City Built on Big Oil

The petrochemical industry has been the economic bedrock of Houston since oil was discovered in the region in 1901. Today, approximately 3,600 energy-related companies and some 405 chemical plants dot the metro area. That legacy likely goes a long way in explaining why companies such as ITC and KMCO are still in business despite flagrant, ongoing violations that put Texans at risk. According to an investigation by the Houston Chronicle, a chemical spill or release occurs roughly every six weeks in the area.

When companies do face fines from TCEQ, they typically dispatch a squadron of lawyers to argue down the penalties. Consider chemical manufacturer KMCO, which has paid more than $4 million in local and federal fines over the past decade, but only $150,000 to state regulators during that same period. Or ITC, which perpetrated an unauthorized release of benzene for nearly a week in 2016—and was fined a measly $3,983 by the state.

(When questioned via email about the fairness of this penalty, TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow responded that ITC “paid the administrative penalties and took actions to correct the violations.”)

Granted, TCEQ shoulders a heavy responsibility—as the nation’s fourth-largest environmental agency, it oversees everything from air quality permits and solid waste disposal to water quality compliance. But critics say the agency’s 2,800 employees are more devoted to protecting industry than the health of Texans.

Nor is the Texas legislature much help. In 2015, it passed a rule that caps the amount of money local jurisdictions can receive in environmental contamination lawsuits. While Texas attorney general Ken Paxton has sued KMCO and ITC for the most recent incidents, critics say such tough actions are far too rare.

In the ITC fire’s aftermath, local residents are also questioning why the agency downplayed the risk to their families, especially since air monitoring during the blaze was spotty at best. “We have all this inconsistent data,” says Deyadira Arellano, a senior staffer with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), a frontline organization that works on behalf of underserved communities. “So it doesn’t make sense when we have officials coming to a press conference and telling the public that everything is safe, that these are low levels. Where were they drawing that information from?”

Restaurant patrons at lunch as a chemical fire at Intercontinental Terminals sends dark smoke over the community
Credit: Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via Associated Press

Arellano notes the fire started on St. Patrick’s Day. “No one was told not to go outside,” she says. “People were at the public pools, or out flying kites, and we have officials stating that the plume is just like campfire.”

TCEQ’s Morrow responds that the air monitoring system was collecting data throughout the incident. The one exception was a gas monitor at Deer Park that was out of commission for “quality control calibration.”

More condemnation of TCEQ comes from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, whose District 18 includes much of Houston. “I’m not a fan of the TCEQ,” she says. “We wouldn’t even be in this predicament if the TCEQ was doing its job.”

When Lee hosted a big town town hall meeting in Deer Park just after the fires, she found a traumatized audience. “People are still feeling impacted,” she says.

The Resistance Grows

Fortunately, new leaders at the local level appear to be rising up in defense of the communities neglected by the state.

In particular, Lina Hidalgo, the new judge for Harris County (which includes Deer Park) and the presiding officer of the Commissioner’s Court (the main governing body of the county), has led the charge for answers about the ITC fire. The 28-year-old Colombian immigrant built a strong progressive coalition during her election campaign and has since become a fierce advocate for the area’s most vulnerable communities. Adrian Garcia, 58, a fellow Democrat and former Harris County sheriff, was just elected to the Commissioner’s Court. Both were present at Lee’s town hall, and the congresswoman noticed how attentive they were. Lee says, “The individuals representing that community were all minorities, unlike it was before. And they were intense.”

In late March, Harris County sued ITC, accusing the company of violating the state’s health, safety, and water codes. “The primary purpose of the action is to do everything we can as a county to keep this from happening again,” First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard told the Houston Chronicle.

So it appears that ITC’s latest debacle could be a game changer for imperiled residents. “Thousands of people got sick because of the ITC fire,” says Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, another local environmental justice organization. “Our community is very fired up about this, and a number of things are emerging as a result.” Within days of the fire, sick residents lined up at a Deer Park community center where Harris County officials had set up a clinic to address their headaches and respiratory issues. At least 15 individuals, those with the most severe illness, were dispatched by ambulance to hospital emergency rooms.

Among the groups energized by this catastrophe is the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience, which brings together social justice and affordable housing organizations, along with environmental justice groups such as TEJAS and Air Alliance Houston. Founded after Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston in 2017, the coalition focuses on TCEQ reform.

For starters, the activists demand a change in the agency’s leadership. But that’s just the beginning, says Nelson. “We also want them to start proactively inspecting facilities that have a history of violations, to proactively review plans for facilities in close proximity to vulnerable communities, and to allocate more funding for monitoring.”

This fight, however, goes well beyond regulation of the industries in their backyard. Despite a growing number of cases like that of Deer Park pointing to a need for more federal oversight, the Trump administration is pushing for the opposite. For instance, it has proposed eliminating the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which analyzes industrial accidents to prevent future ones. Still, the board won’t go down without a fight, according to Congresswoman Lee. She says that “the Democratic House is going to ignore any cuts Trump [proposes] for the Chemical Safety Board.”

NRDC, Clean Water Action, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, a national network of frontline organizations, are jointly challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to force companies such as ITC to develop “worst-case scenario” response plans. On March 21, just days after the ITC blaze erupted, the groups filed suit, emphasizing that Congress mandated these safety regulations more than 25 years ago, and they have yet to be enacted. “The Trump administration had a chance to head off situations like these,” says NRDC attorney Kaitlin Morrison. The day after the complaint was filed, the fire caused a spill of hazardous substances into the Houston Ship Channel, closing it to ship traffic for several days. “The situation in the channel shows how dangerous these spills can be—threatening the health of millions of people and shutting down economic activity. If the feds do not see why these rules are necessary, we think the courts will.”

For her part, Marcelys Perez just wants to see clear skies and live in a place where toxic disasters are not simply routine. “I felt that I was about to have a heart attack,” she says, recalling the ITC fire plume. “And I still don’t feel that my community got pertinent information about how our health is going to be affected. What is going to happen to us?”

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