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3 Proposals To Help Avoid The Next Deer Park Chemical Plant Fire

Smoke rises from a fire at the Intercontental Terminals Company in Deer Park.
Smoke rises from a fire at the Intercontental Terminals Company in Deer Park.

Lawmakers wrapped up two days of hearings Friday on a fire last month at a chemical storage facility in Deer Park. The fire at the plant owned by Intercontinental Terminals Co. burned for days, spewing millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the air and forcing residents indoors.

At the hearing this week some of the questions and testimony focused on how a change in laws might help avoid a similar disaster in the future. Here are three proposals that came up.

Intercontinental Terminals is facing multiple lawsuits because of the fire. But it’s not the first time the company has been sued, Rock Owens, Harris County's lead environmental prosecutor, told state senators Thursday.

Owens said he’d already sued Intercontinental Terminals twice for breaking environmental rules. But the maximum fines it paid don’t appear to have made its facility any safer.

“We’ve had multiple violations by these companies and the penalties that have been assessed ... just hasn’t been enough to get people to stop doing what they need to stop doing,” he said.

On Friday, state Rep. Mary Ann Perez (D-Pasadena) said the fact that local officials did not initially know what chemicals were burning at the facility was “very disturbing.”

The question of what chemical storage facilities should disclose and to whom gained urgency after the 2103 explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 15 people.

In response, the Obama administration issued federal guidelines strengthening some disclosure rules. Those guidelines  were rolled back last year by the Trump administration, however.

At the state level, Gov. Greg Abbott has long  opposed loosening public access to information about where dangerous chemicals are stored.

Perez asked Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, if his agency had any authority to require safe-design standards for chemical storage tanks.

The answer was no.

“As far as bulk terminals like this, the statutes actually provides an exemption for those facilities,” he said.

Public health groups have been calling for giving the state the ability to require stronger and safer chemical storage tanks after tank ruptures and leaks occurred during Hurricane Harvey.

State Sen. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas)  filed a bill this session to help achieve that.

When pressed on whether his agency would like the authority to regulate chemical storage design standards, Baker said it’s something “someone should take a look at.”

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