Latest chemical plant fire unnerves, infuriates Houston-area residents

By David Leffler, Public Health Watch

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A recent investigation by Public Health Watch and The Texas Tribune, with editing and graphics support from IRW, revealed government negligence before and during a devastating 2019 fire at a tank farm in the Houston suburb of Deer Park. Earlier this month, a public hearing was held for that facility. The next day, another big fire broke out at a plant down the road.

Dozens of anxious and angry residents gathered at Deer Park (Texas) High School’s North Campus on May 4 to demand accountability from state regulators for a 2019 fire that blanketed their communities with toxic chemicals.

Less than 19 hours after the public hearing in the industrialized Houston suburb — held by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ — another large fire broke out at a Shell chemical plant about a mile from the school.

“It feels like we’re just accepting these dangerous accidents as an inevitable part of life,” said Elena Craft, associate vice president of climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund, one of several nonprofits that have spent years documenting the health risks posed by Texas’ petrochemical industry. “It’s defeating. You work and work and work to try to make things better, but they’re exactly the same.”

Public Health Watch has been reporting on the dangers of industrial pollution for nearly two years as part of its Toxic Texas Air project. The latest installment, a two-part investigation with The Texas Tribune, focused on a 2019 fire at the tank farm that was the focus of the recent public hearing. The series revealed that state and federal regulators had known for nearly 20 years of widespread problems at the facility that burned — Intercontinental Terminals Company, or ITC — but had done little to force the company to improve.

The ITC fire lasted for three days and created a cloud of black smoke so vast that the National Weather Service tracked it for weeks. It also released dangerous levels of the carcinogen benzene, which lingered in nearby neighborhoods long after public health measures were lifted.

“ITC was the biggest industrial disaster in this country in at least the last 50, maybe 100 years, in terms of the magnitude of cancer-causing compounds that were spewed into communities,” Craft said. “But as Public Health Watch’s investigation suggested, and as this latest fire confirms, it’s concerning how many other ITCs are out there.”

Elena Craft, associate vice president of climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund. Craft said she felt “an overwhelming sadness” after learning about yet another industrial accident threatening Deer Park residents. (Photo courtesy Elena Craft)

ITC has faced few consequences for the disaster. The EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas ceded all potential Clean Air Act enforcement to the TCEQ. The TCEQ referred the case to the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which filed a lawsuit against ITC in 2019. According to court records, there have been no filings in the case since 2021.

The only major penalty ITC has faced came from Harris County, which includes Houston and Deer Park. The county settled a lawsuit against the company in 2021 for $900,000 — or 0.0001 percent of the $7.39 billion in profits that ITC’s parent company, the Japan-based Mitsui Group, recorded that year.

Many residents of Deer Park and neighboring communities like Pasadena saw this month’s public hearing as their last chance to hold ITC accountable for the fire. The company is seeking to renew its five-year operating permit and the hearing was part of that process. But people left the high school frustrated after TCEQ staff declined to address questions about the fire, saying they were “not within the scope” of the permit review.

“With this new permit, you’re saying you cannot consider this past incident that you have not even resolved yet,” one speaker said. “TCEQ is supposed to be for the quality of the environment and for the people. You have failed in that duty. Do not expand upon that failure by approving this permit.”

(An audio clip of a resident airing their frustration at ITC’s permit renewal hearing in Deer Park on May 4. Credit: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality)

TCEQ spokesperson Laura Lopez told Public Health Watch that the agency is reviewing ITC’s permit renewal application “consistently with state and federal rules.”

ITC did not respond to requests for comment.

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The latest industrial fire in Deer Park erupted at a facility with an even lengthier history of violations than ITC. The Shell Deer Park Chemicals plant has had 542 chemical leaks since 2002, state records show, and has been the subject of two lawsuits from the EPA and Texas environmental groups over air pollution from equipment malfunctions. The company was forced to spend more than $120 million on pollution-control technology and settlements in those two cases alone.

More enforcement actions could emerge following the May 5 fire, which swept through an area of the plant housing olefins — chemicals used to make plastic and rubber products — including the carcinogen 1,3-butadiene. The blaze burned off and on for three days, releasing a gigantic black plume. Craft said black smoke usually indicates the presence of fine particles that are too small to see and can settle deep into lungs and seep into bloodstreams.

Shell did not respond to requests for comment.

Towering flames and black smoke pour out of an ITC tank on the night of March 17, 2019. The fire would blow through an entire section of the facility housing volatile chemicals. (Environmental Protection Agency)

Cracking down in a meaningful way on Shell, ITC or other polluters would require legislation at the state and federal levels — a tall task given the current political climate.

U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, a first-term Democrat from Central Texas who sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said he was appalled by the findings of the Public Health Watch-Texas Tribune ITC investigation and will look for ways to “address environmental concerns and protect people.”

“There are so many red flags in this story. The lack of government intervention following the 2019 chemical fire in Deer Park, along with the endangerment of the public, is impermissible,” Casar said. “The EPA, the TCEQ, and all levels of government should protect residents and address the harm that happened. Anything less is irresponsible.”

U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, a first-term Democrat from Central Texas, called the EPA and TCEQ’s inaction around the ITC fire “impermissible.” (Photo: Office of U.S. Rep. Greg Casar)

Casar and 24 other members of Congress — all Democrats — sent a letter last week to President Joe Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan. It urged the EPA to address loopholes that allow industrial facilities “to release massive amounts of deadly air pollution with no consequences or accountability.” But it did not include a timetable or suggest a specific plan of action, and the lawmakers have little leverage in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Creating change is even more difficult in the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature, which slashed the TCEQ’s funding by 20% between 2016 and 2021 — even as it increased the state budget by 16%.

State Rep. Penny Morales Shaw, a second-term Democrat who sits on the House Environmental Regulation Committee, vowed to take action to strengthen the TCEQ after reading Public Health Watch’s 2022 investigation into two chemical accidents in Harris County, including one that killed two workers. The investigation showed how Houston-area elected officials grew frustrated with the Texas GOP’s efforts to limit local enforcement and the TCEQ’s failure to protect communities being bombarded with chemicals.

Morales Shaw introduced three bills during this year’s legislative session, which ends May 29.

HB 1360 would require the TCEQ to post permitting information, including public hearing dates, online. Currently, facilities seeking new permits are only required to post such information in a Spanish-language newspaper, an English-language newspaper and on a sign along their fenceline — a process advocates argue is outdated and non-inclusive. HB 3853 would increase the TCEQ’s maximum daily fines for certain violations from $25,000 to $40,000.

State Rep. Penny Morales Shaw, who represents the northwestern part of Houston, has introduced several bills during the 2023 legislative session that would crack down on polluters. (Office of State Rep. Penny Morales Shaw)

Those two bills have been rolled into a larger TCEQ sunset bill, which reviews the agency’s effectiveness every 10 years. The sunset bill has been passed by the Texas Senate but is still being considered in the House.

Morales Shaw’s third bill, HB 3913, would direct some of the revenue Texas received from pollution-related lawsuits filed by state or local governments into an environmental remediation fund maintained by the TCEQ. The bill was passed out of committee but was never scheduled for a floor vote in the House — all but killing its chances of becoming law.

“That latest [Shell] fire is the perfect example of why we need bills like this,” Morales Shaw said. “I’m telling other members, ‘See, these things can happen in your county and your constituents should be protected.’”

Morales Shaw said she’ll try to salvage HB 3913 by adding pieces of it to existing bills through amendments. If that doesn’t work, she said, she’ll introduce it again in 2025, the next time the biennial legislature convenes.

“The people expect us to do the right thing while they’re busy caring for their families and all the other things that life demands,” Morales Shaw said. “The buck stops with us. We’ve got to keep pushing.”

Savanna Strott contributed to this story.