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Public Citizen Op-ed in the Houston Chronicle: Did Dan Crenshaw Forget the KMCO Explosion in His Own District?

The congressman says chemical risk isn't a big deal. He should know better.

By Adrian Shelley

The following op-ed first appeared in the Houston Chronicle on April 12, 2024

Five years ago this month, there was an explosion in Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s congressional district. One man was killed and at least 30 more were injured when the KMCO (“chem-co”) facility in Crosby blew up. As one first responder described it, “there was nothing left” of the building after the explosion.

Amazingly, at the time of the April 2019 explosion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was already two years into a lengthy process of updating the Risk Management Program rule. The RMP rule enacts the Clean Air Act’s mandate to reduce accidents and improve safety at chemical facilities. It is intended to prevent accidents like the one in Crosby. After being proposed in 2017, the rule was rolled back in 2019, strengthened in 2022 and finalized in February this year.

Crosby and Harris County, where Crosby is located, are home to many people living near chemical facilities like KMCO. In response to the new RMP rule, Crenshaw chose to side with the chemical facilities over his constituents by filing a Congressional Review Act Joint Resolution seeking to undo the rule that communities in Harris County have long waited for. He referred to the rule as “a costly ‘solution’ for a problem that doesn’t exist” — a stunning erasure of the fatal KMCO accident.

The RMP rule offers several ways to make chemical plants safer. To name a few, the new rule:

  • Requires approximately 1,500 chemical plants across the country to evaluate safer technologies.
  • Allows the EPA to gather and share information about new, safer designs.
  • Creates a publicly searchable database of information on RMP facilities.

These and the rule’s other common-sense provisions are what any family with a chemical facility in their neighborhood would want.

Crenshaw’s press release announcing his challenge to the rule includes favorable quotes from the American Chemistry Council and the American Petroleum Institute. However, it doesn’t mention the perspective of his constituents, including the ones in Crosby who watched a building in their community be reduced to shrapnel. It also doesn’t mention the benefits to the companies and their communities of switching to safer alternatives and preventing chemical incidents.

Crenshaw gives an example of what he believes is an unacceptable cost to industry: the potential phase-out of hydrofluoric acid (HF) use in refineries. He notes that more than 40 refineries across the United States use HF and argues that a phase-out could cost between $15 billion and $41 billion, a claim we believe will prove to be a wild exaggeration. (Two-thirds of the country’s refineries already use a safer alternative.)

The congressman also fails to note just how dangerous HF is to humans. The stuff is poison. Crenshaw might be unfamiliar with the 1986 “Goldfish” release test, in which an experimental release of nearly four tons of HF resulted in a plume more than twice the lethal limit 2 miles downwind. He may not know about the 1987 HF leak at a refinery in Texas City, which sent 800 people to the hospital.

I know the dangers of HF because I’ve studied chemical safety at Houston facilities for over a decade. Long before an online database existed, I visited federal reading rooms to view Risk Management Plans for Houston facilities. I signed my name, surrendered my phone and hand-copied each company’s Risk Management Plan details.

There is a refinery in Houston with a worst-case scenario hydrofluoric acid release that could impact anyone within 15 miles — 1.7 million people in total.

Things have changed since the KMCO accident, but only superficially. ALTIVIA Oxide Chemicals acquired KMCO in 2020. Today, you don’t have to read RMP data in person under the watchful eyes of a federal agent; you can use the new database created by the RMP rule. You can access even more information if you live, work or spend significant time within 6 miles of an RMP facility.

If you look up ALTIVIA in the database, as I did, you won’t find the 2019 explosion listed in its five-year accident history. Maybe that’s because the online tool is brand-new. Perhaps it’s because of KMCO’s acquisition and name change. Or maybe it’s because memories are short.

Does Crenshaw know the extent of the risk from chemical facilities in his district? Does he know how long communities have waited for this rule?

Does he care?

The people of Crosby haven’t forgotten about the KMCO blast. Crenshaw should not forget about them.

Adrian Shelley is the Texas director of Public Citizen.