The Houston Area Has Had Two Chemical Plant Fires in Two Weeks. Why Do They Keep Happening?

Frequent chemical fires in the Houston area signal larger deficiencies in oversight of the chemical industry at both the state and federal levels.
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Traffic continues on Interstate 35 as Waxahachie firefighters battle a massive fire at the Magnablend chemical processing plant on October 3rd, 2011, in Waxahachie, Texas.

Traffic continues on Interstate 35 as Waxahachie firefighters battle a massive fire at the Magnablend chemical processing plant on October 3rd, 2011, in Waxahachie, Texas.

On Tuesday, a fire erupted at a KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, killing one worker and leaving two others injured. This was the second Texas chemical fire in two weeks, following a blaze that began at a petrochemical storage facility in Deer Park on March 17th. While no injuries were reported, the Deer Park fire triggered widespread concerns about air quality in the area.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told the Associated Press that "it is disturbing and it is problematic that we're seeing this incident in a facility, especially on the heels of" the fire in Deer Park.

Here's what we know about the regulation of this industry.

Do Chemical Fires Happen Frequently?

In an op-ed published by the Houston Chronicle after the Deer Park fire, Elena Craft, the senior director for health and climate at the Environmental Defense Fund, criticized the lack of oversight by state agencies, writing that "the state agency responsible for ensuring chemical plant safety is missing in action—unable or unwilling to protect the health and well-being of Texas families." Craft argues that the Texas Commission on Environmental Air Quality, a state agency tasked with protecting the state's natural resources, has essentially let companies "self-regulate."

In 2016, a year-long Houston Chronicle investigation revealed that chemical plants across Houston, America's petrochemical capital, remain a pervasive and virtually unsupervised threat. According to the investigation, the Houston area has a chemical fire or explosion every six weeks on average.

How the Chemical Industry Is (or Isn't) Regulated

At the state level, supervision has been limited in Texas. This, along with Texas' disproportionate number of chemical facilities, has created the perfect chemical breeding ground for toxic fires.

But Texas is not alone. The frequent chemical fires there exemplify an oversight gap at the federal level as well.

The Houston Chronicle reports that, across various federal agencies tasked with supervising the chemical industry's 15,000 plants, there are fewer than 400 federal inspectors, and they have a combined budget of less than $50 million a year. These agencies include the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

The EPA has been largely focused on preventing and mitigating environmental damage, and invests very few resources in chemical safety. Less than 1 percent of its $8.6 billion budget is allocated for regulations regarding chemical safety.

Chemical companies actively lobby to keep the industry more or less deregulated. Using data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the Houston Chronicle reports that the industry has annually spent an average of $191 million on lobbying, and frequently cites the risk of terrorism as a justification for keeping industry information private. In cases when new regulations are established, supervisory agencies at the state and federal level simply don't have the capacity to enforce them.

Is Legal Change Likely?

The 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that devastated the area's farming community left 15 people dead, injured over 200, and leveled hundreds of homes. The severity of the explosion led to an order by President Barack Obama to overhaul chemical safety laws.

The Houston Chronicle investigation concludes with Obama's mostly unsuccessful plan to create more rigorous standards for oversight of the chemical industry. Ultimately, the industry's expansive lobbying efforts diminished the impact of Obama's intended policies.

And regulatory efficacy has only declined from there.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that he wants to gut the EPA, and his proposed budget for the 2020 fiscal year would decrease EPA funding by 31 percent. Trump has already made cuts to the EPA that will likely further restrict the agency's already limited capacity to regulate the chemical industry. With increasing cuts, it seems unlikely that significant change to further regulate the chemical industry will occur under this administration.

In further government cuts, Trump officials are attempting to ease regulations that require large companies under the supervision of the OSHA report injury and illness data. In addition to increasingly unsafe conditions for workers, these changes could also diminish regulatory agencies' capacity to supervise and determine whether chemical companies are adequately following safety protocols.

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