After The Second Fire In A Month, Residents Near Houston Chemical Plants Want More Action From Government

A Houston Chronicle reporter says some have expressed frustration, but Harris County has stepped in to pull operating permits from some companies.

By Jill Ament & Rhonda FanningApril 3, 2019 11:50 am,

For the second time in a month, a fire broke out this week at a petrochemical plant near Houston. This time, it was at the KMCO plant in Crosby where one person died and two others were injured.

Like the earlier fire at a Deer Park facility, the KMCO fire sent a plume of black smoke into the air. One resident who lives 2.5 miles north of the plant told the Houston Chronicle that the ground shook and windows rattled after the fire caused an explosion at the plant Tuesday morning.

Matt Dempsey, data editor for the Chronicle, has been reporting on the fires, and says the one in Crosby was extinguished Tuesday afternoon. Now, investigators are looking for its source.

“They believe the fire started when a transfer line carrying isobutylene … caught fire and exploded,” Dempsey says.

Authorities issued a shelter-in-place order in the Crosby area Tuesday. That’s similar to an order issued by the city during the Deer Park fire, days after that fire started. Official issues that order because of elevated levels of benzene in the air. But Dempsey says he hasn’t yet seen air quality data that indicates anything abnormal after the Crosby fire. He says Houston was under an ozone warning Tuesday anyway, which means the air quality was already poor. As a result, schools took extra precautions to protect kids’ health.

“There is a kindergarten center that was less than a mile away from the facility, and parents couldn’t get their children till much later in the day because they didn’t want to let them out until things were more settled down,” Dempsey says.

Some who live in the area have said they accept the risks that go along with living in close proximity to petrochemical plants. But now, with two fires happening in close succession, Dempsey says attitudes are starting to change.

“There’s definitely some frustration,” Dempsey says.

He says some residents say the county and state need to do more to prevent fires and other environmental disasters. After the Deer Park fire, for example, chemicals spilled into the Houston Ship Channel, threatening nearby marshland.

One thing Harris County has done is to use floodplain regulations as a way to revoke the operating permits of companies that Dempsey calls “bad actors.” An Arkema North America plant in the area, for example, can’t open because it’s missing these permits.

“Harris County is using the floodplain regulations to say, ‘You’re not up to code and we’re not gonna let you operate again,’” Dempsey says.

He says the county is stepping in because the state agencies don’t have the legal authority to take those kinds of actions.

Written by Caroline Covington.