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Houston-Area Chemical Fires Draw Attention To Lax Safety Laws


The city of Houston has seen three fires at petrochemical facilities in less than a month. The last fire killed a worker there. All sent giant black plumes of smoke into the sky. Florian Martin of Houston Public Media looks into the string of accidents and whether anything is being done to prevent them in the future.

FLORIAN MARTIN, BYLINE: It started on March 16 with a chemical fire just east of Houston.


SYAN RHODES: And that breaking news coming to us from Baytown, where crews are monitoring a fire at the Exxon Mobil refinery.


MARTIN: That's local TV station KPRC. The blaze was put out only a few hours later. The very next day, just across the Houston Ship Channel, a fire broke out at a chemical storage facility at ITC, Intercontinental Terminals Company. That fire spread to several tanks and burned for three days. It reignited two days later and chemicals spilled into the Houston Ship Channel, shutting down the busy waterway for several days. And after things finally seemed under control with that fire...


EDDIE ROBINSON: Emergency crews are responding to a chemical plant fire out in east Harris County off old Highway 90 in Crosby.

MARTIN: Houston Public Media reported an explosion at KMCO, 25 miles northeast of downtown Houston - killed one worker and injured two others. Jim Blackburn says, unfortunately, this is part of life in the Houston area. He's an environmental engineering professor at Rice University.

JIM BLACKBURN: We have had these three occurrences. They occurred, you know, frankly, at a time period that - it's probably much more frequent than would be the normal case. But, you know, we have a lot of chemicals that are being handled. All of these chemical processes are dangerous. Inherent in that is the potential for explosion.

MARTIN: Talk to residents near the refineries and you hear similar tones. Barb Wooster lives in Baytown, near the site of the Exxon Mobil fire.

BARB WOOSTER: It's something we accept. It's part of the economy - the local economy. We understand that if our families and the people that we know and care about want jobs - need jobs to support their families or take care of their responsibilities, there's some inherent risk in being in this environment where industry is so prevalent.

MARTIN: But even though Wooster has lived here all her life, the recent incidents are making her second-guess her decision to raise a family in the Houston area. Authorities say air readings showed no harmful levels of toxins throughout the incidents except for in the immediate vicinity of the sites. But for clean air advocates, this doesn't mean all is good. Corey Williams is with the group Air Alliance Houston. He says it could have been much worse if the weather hadn't played along.

COREY WILLIAMS: I don't think it's worth gambling the public's health on favorable weather conditions.

MARTIN: He hopes the attention the string of incidents received will lead to more enforcement by the state of safety violations in the industry, which has historically been lax in Texas. Jim Blackburn does too. He says even in Houston, many people who don't live near the petrochemical complexes that line the Ship Channel often forget about them.

BLACKBURN: Something like that big, black plume of smoke across the Houston skyline, I think, is a way of communicating these risk - these dangers to people that oftentimes feel that they're exempt from it. And I think that's important.

MARTIN: The state certainly took notice. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton swiftly filed suit against both ITC and KMCO. But many are skeptical. Blackburn says with the national attention and the state legislature in session, part of the decision was likely image control. Meanwhile, the three companies are all vowing to be better in the future. The fire marshal is still investigating the sources of all three fires, so none are giving specifics on what they'll do differently. And residents, like Kenneth Brown, say they'll just have to hope that the recent events weren't an indication of these kinds of accidents happening more often in the future.

KENNETH BROWN: Well, I mean, the plans were there when I moved here. And they're going to probably be here when I'm gone.

MARTIN: For NPR News, I'm Florian Martin in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Florian Martin