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Houston Chemical Fire Shows Need for Stronger Protections, More Vigilant Enforcement

Chemical Fires Far Too Common in the Houston Area

HOUSTON – A chemical fire that erupted early Sunday morning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) plant in La Porte, Texas, and is expected to continue to burn through Wednesday shows the dire need for tougher regulation and enforcement, Public Citizen said today. In addition, the disaster underscores the need for more public information from both the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about chemical risks and disaster response efforts.

The fire, which so far involves seven petrochemical storage tanks, sent a thick plume of smoke over the Houston region, forcing local officials to urge residents to shelter in place and cancel classes in both the Deer Park and La Porte Independent School Districts. At least three toxic chemicals involved in the blaze – naphtha, xylene and toluene – pose a danger to public safety. Short-term exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, breathing irritation, weakness and memory loss – with potentially fatal effects from longer-term exposure.

The ITC fire comes on the heels of a separate, unrelated fire at ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery on Saturday, which has been contained. A 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation found that chemical incidents occur once every six weeks in the Houston area.

“The ITC chemical fire demonstrates how chemical disasters happen far too often in our region, often due to lax regulatory oversight and enforcement,” said Stephanie Thomas, researcher for Public Citizen’s Texas office. “While this fire rages on for days, the Trump administration is trying to slash the budgets of the EPA and the Chemical Safety Board, and is rolling back the 2017 Risk Management Plan amendments, which sought to bring greater safety to communities like Deer Park that are surrounded by the petrochemical industry. We need more protections for our communities and a serious investment in our health and safety.”

Public Citizen has called for restoring chemical right-to-know standards, so that first responders and residents who live near industrial facilities can fully understand the potential hazards of plants’ chemical inventories. The TCEQ needs additional staff and tools – such as a mobile monitoring unit for full-time use in Houston – to be able to adequately respond to pollution disasters, and needs to be more forthcoming with information about serious health-related incidents, Public Citizen maintains. As of 1 p.m. CDT on Monday, the agency still had not posted any information about the Houston fire on its website or social media accounts.

“Industrial disasters are the natural and inevitable outcome of administration policy to let corporate wrongdoers off the hook, slash regulatory and enforcement budgets, and not update regulations to deal with serious health, safety and environmental risks,” added Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.