A massive chemical tank fire that burned for four days in Texas is finally out as of Wednesday, but concerns over the pollution and threat to public health posed by the smoke are only just beginning as residents push for accountability.
Many Texans are dissatisfied with the response from the state government, with some also worried about the larger connection to the Trump administration’s push to weaken environmental and chemical regulations nationally.
Proposals pushed by the administration could, many fear, worsen future pollution problems and abuses by industry. The president’s 2020 budget proposal would see the EPA’s funding slashed 31 percent, the largest cut to any federal agency. That decrease includes cuts to programs targeting air pollution.
Trump has also sought repeatedly to eliminate the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which offers recommendations often adopted by both local government and federal agencies. During the aftermath of Harvey, for instance, the board closely followed chemical fires and explosions in southeast Texas, and its work is considered crucial to chemical oversight more generally.
This week’s chemical fire began Sunday morning at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. (ITC) plant in Deer Park, near Houston, Texas. The blaze at the petrochemical storage facility sent a massive plume of smoke over Houston and across the wider area, leading to mass school closures and impacting at least eight cities.
“We’re still not in the all-clear,” Yvette Arellano, a senior staff member with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Series (TEJAS), told ThinkProgress on Wednesday. Her organization is already preparing to spend the coming weeks assessing the damage on public health and the environment, in addition to seeking answers from the government.
And while state officials downplayed the health ramifications, local experts grimly noted that the incident is reflective of the wider issues that have plagued Houston, the nation’s petrochemical capital and a massive industrial hub where major chemical incidents have been found to occur once every six weeks.
“[It’s an] example of the toxic nightmare that communities have to deal with in Houston,” said Neil Carman, the clean air director for the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter, to ThinkProgress.
That runs counter to government narratives about the fire. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reassured residents throughout the fire that it posed no threat to human health. On Tuesday, Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton described the situation as posing the “same risks you’d have in your backyard fire.” Sitton, whose agency is involved in safety and fossil fuel regulation, also argued that TCEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had found no threat to people while monitoring the incident.
But locals described burning sensations in their throat and eyes, while the TCEQ’s self-reported data indicated that ITC had released 9 million pounds of unauthorized pollution in just a few days due to the fire. That pollution includes chemicals like naphtha and toluene, which are associated with headaches and dizziness in the short-term, and kidney damage in the long-term.
And many residents don’t trust the state or federal government to address the issue, especially given recent controversies. An investigation by the LA Times earlier this month found that both the EPA and the TCEQ declined to have a pollution-spotting plane fly over Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Both agencies repeatedly downplayed pollution during the disaster, even as massive water and air pollution was documented across the region.
“At this time, we don’t think your data would be useful,” TCEQ’s chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, told NASA at the time. Honeycutt is the Trump administration’s top EPA science advisor and has a history of questioning the impact of pollution on public health.
Historically, TCEQ has largely failed to regulate polluters in Texas. A 2017 investigation by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) found that Texas failed to penalize around 97 percent of illegal air pollution releases between 2011 and 2016. Those who are penalized face a fine and then largely continue operating — ITC itself has notably come under fire for repeated environmental violations.
“State officials say their monitors show ‘normal’ levels of pollution, but they have a track record of minimizing health threats from pollution,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, speaking about the ITC fire to ThinkProgress.
Arellano said that her primary concern is for the vulnerable communities repeatedly impacted by incidents like the ITC fire. When more affluent, white communities expressed fear this week at the sight of the large smoke plume that coated Houston’s skyline for days, Arellano said they experienced a measure of what lower income communities of color who live closer to the facilities see constantly.
And given that those directly exposed to the chemicals from the fire may not show symptoms for years, she worries that there will be no accountability, from either ITC or the government.
“The general population was harmed overall,” she said. “Do we believe there will be strong enforcement actions? No. Because it goes back to TCEQ.”
As of Wednesday morning, the ITC fire was officially declared extinguished, even as questions linger about air quality. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency is monitoring the air, but residents remain concerned for their health. And for some environmental advocates, the incident speaks to larger issues.
“What happened was beyond a local event. This was a national emergency,” said Arellano.
She pointed to a wider disregard for environmental protections, along with climate action, stemming from both the state and federal government. “People should come first and they continue to be put last,” she said, decrying the “climate denying” politics of the Republican-controlled Texas government, which has largely prioritized fossil fuels and the chemical industry over human health and safety.
Metzger also connected the problem to wider issues stemming from the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks.
“It is further evidence that the Trump administration’s massive proposed cuts for EPA are deeply reckless,” said Metzger, who argued that the agency’s work is “critically important” to protecting people in industrial hubs like Houston.
Whether or not those impacted by the ITC fire wind up connecting the incident to wider national trends, Arellano argued that state residents are shifting how they see issues like environmental justice in Texas.
“People are scared,” she said, pointing to 2018, when Democrats had an unusually strong showing in state-wide elections. “The last set of elections in Texas showed us that people want more.”
Nodding to the upcoming 2020 elections, she indicated that Texans are increasingly dissatisfied with the way the state and federal government have treated their concerns, not least of all with regard to the environment. And while it’s too soon to say anything definitive, the fire could play a role in how many approach the ballot box more than a year from now.
“We know this is about information withheld by corporation interests in a climate-denying state,” Arellano said, referencing the animosity towards ITC and the TCEQ. “We’re not backwards. We’re people, just like everyone else.”