Why It’s So Hard to Learn Where Hazardous Chemicals Are Stored

“I don’t know what’s there. I have no idea what’s at this place.”

By Rhonda FanningMay 6, 2016 11:51 am, ,

A house fire quickly turned into a four-alarm blaze Thursday in Northwest Houston is still being investigated.

But as the fire spread to the nearby Custom Packaging and Filling Company, officials became alarmed of the potential threat of hazardous chemicals. That prompted the evacuation of an elementary school, and the enactment of a shelter in place warning.

According to the company’s website they handle hazardous substances – but the Houston fire officials say they had no idea what those substances were.

Matt Dempsey, data reporter for the Houston Chronicle’s Investigations team, says he doesn’t know why the company didn’t have to file their chemical inventories with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

But one thing is for sure, the public has no idea what chemicals the company handles, or how much.

Firefighters expected to manage the blaze also had no idea what they were getting into.

“The firefighters didn’t have material safety data sheets,” Dempsey says. “If you have something hazardous you have to list this. … You could hear the frustration when I talked to the firefighter (Thursday) about how they didn’t have these things.”

Dempsey asked how the firefighters knew how to fight the fires. “I don’t know what’s there. I have no idea what’s at this place,” the firefighter said.

“Texas goes out of its way to make it harder to get those chemical inventories, than the federal law says it should,” Dempsey says.

When Gov. Greg Abbott was still in the Attorney General’s seat, his office released a ruling saying that reporters can no longer get those inventories from the state. The Attorney General’s office also ruled that local emergency planning committees and fire departments also don’t have to provide lists if they don’t want to.

Dempsey says the only way to ask for these chemical inventories is to ask each company directly.

There’s also the question as to why a school was so near to the company’s facilities. Houston does not have zoning laws, but development is managed through city codes.

“These places aren’t really obvious,” Dempsey says. “You don’t really know where these chemical hazards can be. They can be in a place that looks as innocuous as this one. This did not look like a chemical facility. There’s not pipes and flares and obvious signs that this is a chemical facility in any way.”

The Houston Chronicle will begin an in-depth series on hazardous chemical handling Sunday.

Prepared for the web by Beth Cortez-Neavel.