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Culture, Money & Bureaucracy Endanger Houston Communities

In an investigative report, the Houston Chronicle looked at the dangers businesses pose when hazardous chemicals aren’t tracked or inspected. In Part 6 of a series, the report looks at how Houston could be so unprepared for chemical disasters—despite having had a chance to learn its lesson 21 years ago.

The story begins with the Market Street fire in 1995. A warehouse at Houston Distribution Inc. ignited, and when firefighters showed up to fight it, they had no idea what chemicals were inside. There weren’t any records available regarding what was in the facility, and even a representative from Houston Distribution wasn’t sure what could be burning or what might be in the fumes.

Firefighter union officials are now concerned about the long-term cancer-causing effects of this fire.

All the representative knew was that a large amount of hydrogen peroxide was being kept nearby, and the firefighters needed to protect it to prevent a massive explosion.

Pleasantville, which was near the fire, was evacuated. Eventually fire fighters onsite were evacuated, but only after they hacked through their own fire hoses that kept their trucks from moving—they had been filled with water with no time to drain them.

Fire fighters who were there agree that dozens could have been killed from not knowing the facility's contents.

The (Empty) Promise of Reform

The Mayor’s office initiated new policies to ensure that this would never happen again:

  • $25,000 set aside for emergency planning
  • Creation of the Committee on Environmental Standards
  • Requirement for all warehouses to publicly disclose contents
  • Twice-yearly inspections for thousands of warehouses
  • Requiring hazmat-permit businesses to post warnings about materials
  • Preventing hazmat facilities from being built within 1,000 feet of schools or homes

The central question was an obvious one: how could the 4th-largest city in the U.S. be so unprepared? The city wanted to assure the public that something like this would never catch them off-guard. However, 20 years later, none of these policies still exist. Facilities haven't been required to disclose contents since 2011.

There is no money set aside for the emergency planning committee.

There is no longer a Committee on Environmental Standards.

Less than 20% of hazmat-permitted businesses are ever inspected.

Recent investigation revealed that the city’s fire prevention department, responsible for all hazmat inspections, can’t account for the annual progress of its 125 inspectors.

No businesses have been recently fined for not posting hazardous material warnings.

Fire inspector Chris Cato notes that most hazardous facilities in Houston are operating illegally.

As a result, the same conditions that led to the 1995 fire led to frustratingly similar circumstances for the Spring Branch fire in May 2016. That fire was large enough to show on weather radar, with nearby schools evacuating while explosions boomed. Deep red fluid killed hundreds of animals in a nearby creek, flaming liquid spilled out of a burning warehouse, and a tar-like substance covered cars in a nearby residential neighborhood.

Just like 21 years prior, there was no record of what was in the warehouse. 400 firefighters appeared to fight a fire whose properties they would never know. No recent inspection record existed for a business that had been receiving hazmat permits for 7 years without accountability.

What’s worse—the exploding warehouse was located near a nursing home, a school, an ammo shop, houses, and apartment buildings. And the city didn’t know what was in the warehouse.

Comparisons with Other Cities

The terrible truth is this:

None of these problems are inevitable.

These are fixable issues, especially for a city with as many resources as our own. There’s no problem here that hasn’t already been solved by smaller cities with less resources. The Houston Chronicle report frequently compared Charlotte, NC and their programs to the much-larger Houston.

For example, in 2015 Charlotte inspected 41,000 buildings with 36 inspectors. They also have a mandate that every hazmat-permitted facility must be inspected every 3 years minimum. When a warehouse fire occurs, Charlotte fire fighters access a database of inspections and hazardous contents on a tablet while en route to the fire. This digital system and tablets have been in use since 2003 and is standard equipment for firetrucks.

Meanwhile, Houston fire fighters must dig through paper binders with incomplete or inaccurate records.

What’s baffling is that the Houston fire department has had a digital database since 2011—but it’s only been added to at a pace of two buildings a day. As a result, the database holds information on less than 4% of the 72,000 structures in Houston.Not a great deal of return for what has cost us nearly $1.3 million (so far).

Cultural Issues Within the Fire Department

Further, animosity between firefighting departments and fire prevention teams has led to less cooperation between the two. Houston firefighters will likely never receive the information gathered by inspectors during a warehouse fire, despite that being the central reason for gathering the information in the first place.

The report notes that when a fire fighter transferred to the prevention department, his crewmates sneered and asked if he’d be putting on “puppet shows” for schoolchildren. Such a culture could not contrast more with Charlotte, who immediately send out an inspector to inform fire fighters when a fire breaks out at a hazmat site.

In Charlotte, the central difference is what the leadership values: fire prevention gets the full funding, support, and authority of the city and the fire chief. We have 2 hazmat units and 1 station for our city, despite a thriving industrial economy. Los Angeles is smaller than Houston, and it has 4 hazmat stations throughout the city.

It may be that Houston will continue to suffer from chemical fires continuously until our leadership begins to value inspections and fire prevention enough to create or enforce real, practical policies. Until then, we hope that business owners hold themselves accountable instead of waiting on government intervention.