Why Do Chemical Plant Explosions Keep Happening in Houston?

The skies of Houston looked like scenes from a disaster film for parts of March and April. Residents of communities surrounding the city had to shelter in place twice in two weeks as two separate chemical plant explosions sent plumes of black smoke into the air. First, the Intercontinental Terminals Company’s petrochemical storage facility in Deer Park erupted in flames and burned for multiple days. Then, the Crosby KMCO chemical plant exploded, killing one worker and severely injuring two more. Both incidents triggered reports of illness in surrounding communities and caused authorities to issue shelter-in-place orders for those living near the plants.

Now, residents and local officials are asking why these dangerous explosions are happening. In response to the KMCO explosion, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that “It is disturbing and it is problematic that we’re seeing this incident in a facility, especially on the heels of [the Deer Park fire].”

Explosions and fires are not the only problems with Houston chemical plants. The KMCO Crosby plant has a long history of pollution issues, and Harris County has brought litigation against the plant’s owners numerous times over the last few decades. A lawsuit between Harris County and KMCO is currently pending.

Lack of Regulation

Elena Craft, senior director for health and climate at the Environmental Defense Fund, lambasted the Texas Commission on Environmental Air Quality in a Houston Chronicle op-ed published shortly after the Deer Park fire. Craft accused the TCEQ of being “missing in action—unable or unwilling to protect the health and well-being of Texas families." She continued her article by emphasizing that the agency has essentially allowed companies to self-regulate, encouraging lax safety policies and dangerous conditions in plants throughout Houston.

Craft’s observations are not unfounded. A Houston Chronicle investigation in 2016 found a systemic lack of safety in Houston plants. However, state agencies are not the only groups struggling with enforcement. In its investigation, the Chronicle found that less than 400 federal inspectors are expected to oversee 15,000 plants on a budget of $50 million a year. So, companies are regulating themselves, and the results of their poor safety practices are going up in smoke and falling onto Houston residents.

Texas Has a History of Plant Explosions

One of the state’s most deadly plant explosion happened just 6 years ago in West, Texas. When the West Fertilizer Company’s plant exploded, it claimed the lives of 15 people, injured hundreds, and caused millions of dollars in damage to buildings throughout West. Though this event triggered reforms of the nation’s chemical safety laws, safety officials still regard them as relatively ineffective due to the lack of funding for regulating agencies. As budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Administration are set to decrease the agency’s spending by 31 percent, the citizens of Houston might be exposed to more deadly accidents.

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