Click here to subscribe to Fire Triangle, a new podcast produced by Texas Public Radio in collaboration with Houston Public Media. This is the first story in a series about chemical disasters in Texas.
Episode 1: Houston City Limits
It was an early Friday morning last January, in Houston’s Westbranch neighborhood. Gilberto Mendoza Cruz was asleep when a ceiling collapsed on him.
A nearby industrial warehouse, the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing facility, had exploded.
Cruz went to the emergency room and was eventually released. He moved his wife and their two children into a hotel because their home was destroyed.
Two weeks later Cruz died, his lawyer says, from those injuries.
The explosion ended up damaging more than 470 homes and businesses, injuring at least 18 people and killing three.
Down the street, Frank Peters said he was working on home repairs when he was thrown against a wall.
“I was just convinced it was an atomic bomb,” Peters said. “You know, dirty bomb or something — terrorism.”
Peters had recently renovated his home, and now it was blown apart.
“I mean, it was just like nothing I could ever imagine… The house was totally destroyed,” he said. “I was devastated and emotionally, still trying to compute what just happened.”
Four houses down, Julio Granillo was awake watching T.V. while his wife got ready for her early morning shift. After the initial shock from the blast, Granillo ran to his son’s room.
“I opened the door and I said, ‘Hey son you ok?'” he recalled.
After making sure his son was alright, Granillo ran downstairs, where the windows were shattered and the front door was blown out. He stepped outside to see what was going on.
He saw his neighbors come outside, and look toward the east side where smoke was billowing.
This type of smoke was a familiar sight for Houstonians — the aftermath of an industrial blast. But Peters and his neighbors didn’t even know this could happen here in Westbranch.
Peters, Granillo and hundreds of their neighbors saw their homes damaged or destroyed in the blast. One year later, many residents are still trying to rebuild, living in homes with cracked walls and makeshift supports as they wait for insurance money to come through or try to rebuild themselves.
In the meantime, Watson Grinding and Manufacturing has filed for bankruptcy. Numerous lawsuits are working their way through the courts.
“Over the past year we have worked diligently with state and federal agencies to investigate the incident and to gain a clear understanding of what happened that caused this event,” read a statement from the company ahead of the anniversary. “It is in everyone’s best interest to understand what went wrong in order to make sure nothing like this happens in the future.”
When the industrial warehouse exploded, it was the fourth major chemical disaster to rock Houston in less than a year. And as devastating as it was, it didn’t come close to some other chemical disasters in Texas in terms of damage, death, disruption of daily life and environmental fallout.
Residents are wondering what, if anything, is being done to prevent more?
Houston has no zoning, which means residents can live very close to a company that handles toxic chemicals — and they might not even know.
But it isn’t Houston’s fault. It’s Texas’.
In the 1980s, the federal government passed what’s known as the “Emergency Planning and Community Right To Know Act,” which states the public has a right to know what hazardous chemicals are stored in their neighborhoods. The goal was to help communities and local governments prepare for chemical accidents.
After 9/11, homeland security became top of mind. In Texas, state officials argued that hazardous chemicals are a threat to homeland security. If the public has access to this information, the argument went, Texas could be vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Homeland security was deemed more important.
This is allowed under state law — part of the Texas code allows information to be withheld if it’s deemed a homeland security threat.
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Local agencies, like fire departments, have this information, but it’s difficult for members of the public and journalists to get the same access.
“They have the ability to withhold certain information if they believe that the material could be used to be weaponized or used to do illegal things,” said Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña.
As fire chief he does have access to all the information, and he said there should be a way to let the public know without endangering security.
“The federal law is pretty clear, and says the community has a right to know, and we should be providing the information to them to make a proper decision on where to move or what exists or what hazards there are in their neighborhoods,” said Peña.
He said this state legislative session, the city is planning to ask the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to change some of the language or come up with a fix so that basic information on hazardous chemicals can be released to the public.
For now though, local governments can’t do much about this rule, other than complain.
But the City Council of Houston did make one change after the explosion at Watson.
“People were asking me in the months after the explosion, what’s going to be done? What’s going to happen? Are we making any changes to make sure that this won’t happen again?” recalled Houston City Council Member Amy Peck.
She represents the district where the explosion took place. The council tightened some regulations for businesses with hazardous materials, but Peck says more needs to be done at the state and federal level.
“There’s other issues too, such as the buildings that are storing hazardous materials that we don’t even know about. That’s what really worries me, because there are some buildings out there that are just kind of sitting there and no one knows what’s happening in those buildings,” she said.
City officials plan to make more changes, and the federal investigation into the Watson explosion is still ongoing. The Chemical Safety Board is the small agency leading the investigation.
It investigates chemical disasters, but doesn’t have enforcement power.
About a dozen investigators try to find the root causes of a chemical disaster to help determine the full range of factors that led to it, and how to prevent a similar one. The board also issues recommendations — which carry weight because of their scientific ethos. Historically, many CSB recommendations have been adopted and led to safer workplace and communities.
Still, the recommendations are just that — recommendations. They’re addressed to just about anyone and everyone who could make some key change: companies, industry groups, state and federal agencies.
The recommendations are completed at about an 80% rate. But nationally, more than 130 have not been.
Rick Engler, who sat on the CSB for a five-year term which ended last year, doesn’t think disasters like the Watson explosion are going away anytime soon.
“I think that more incidents are inevitable unless there’s a serious commitment by the state of Texas — as well as by the leadership of the United States government — to move forward, not back, on the issues of chemical safety,” said Engler.
Frank Peters, the Westbranch neighbor who thought an atomic bomb had gone off, moved into his dad’s house after the explosion. In a year’s time his insurance company still hasn’t paid his claim, and he doesn’t think they will.
He’s part of one of the ongoing lawsuits against Watson Grinding and Manufacturing.
“When I bought the place, if I would have known something like that… I had many houses to choose from, you know,” said Peters.
“If I knew they had the chemical like that… I could have maybe made a different decision.”
Claire Hyman contributed fact checking to this story.