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Texas argues ‘polluters will be punished’ for chemical fire as public anger mounts

Gov. Greg Abbott has sought to limit pollution lawsuits and Texas has notoriously lax pollution enforcement.

Smoke rises in the air following a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) petrochemical storage site on March 19, 2019 in Houston, Texas. CREDIT: Zeng Jingning/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images
Smoke rises in the air following a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) petrochemical storage site on March 19, 2019 in Houston, Texas. CREDIT: Zeng Jingning/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Texas is suing a chemical company notorious for environmental violations after a hazardous fire reignited at a storage facility on Friday, sparking renewed concerns over health and safety.

The lawsuit comes despite years of criticism from advocates over the state’s history of prioritizing industry interests above human health and the environment, in addition to supporting the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken environmental regulations.

Announced March 22, the suit alleges that Intercontinental Terminals Co. (ITC) violated the Texas Clean Air Act by releasing massive amounts of pollution during the initial fire, which began Sunday and burned for four days, before briefly reigniting on Friday.

The chemical tank fire occurred in Deer Park, not far from Houston, the nation’s petrochemical capital. The blaze — which sent a massive plume of smoke across the wider area for several days this week, impacting at least eight cities — released chemicals commonly found in the production of gasoline, which can cause dizziness and headaches. Those symptoms were reported by residents in the area throughout the week, even as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) downplayed the fire’s risk to the public.

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But numerous flareups followed after the initial fire was extinguished Wednesday. Several communities were asked to shelter in place after a benzene scare on Thursday. Elevated levels of the at-times deadly chemical have been detected in the air since the initial fire and many schools have stayed closed out of concern for students and staff.

“There’s been hardly any coverage of the on-the-ground effects on everyday people,”  Yvette Arellano, a senior organizer with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Series (TEJAS), told ThinkProgress on Wednesday shortly after the fire was first extinguished.

As the incidents have escalated, the state government has gradually shifted its language and come down hard on ITC. The company is responsible for at least 39 unauthorized air pollution releases since 2003 and has long been out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) tweeted that TCEQ would be “exploring all legal options” to hold ITC accountable for the disaster. Minutes later, the governor announced that the state would be suing.

“Polluters will be punished,” Abbott wrote.

In his own statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) said that the state “works hard to maintain good air quality” and would strive to hold ITC accountable for damage done to the environment.

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“ITC has a history of environmental violations, and this latest incident is especially disturbing and frightening. No company can be allowed to disrupt lives and put public health and safety at risk,” Paxton said.

But environmental advocates in the state say the lawsuit runs counter to the Texas government’s own approach to pollution. In 2015, Abbott signed legislation designed to limit pollution lawsuits. That move was largely aimed at Harris County, where Houston is located and where major chemical incidents have been known to occur as often as every six weeks.

“Sadly, major chemical incidents are far too frequent in the Houston area, putting the health and well-being of all of us at risk,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, in an email to ThinkProgress.

Texas has historically declined to reign in polluters and TCEQ has been accused of penalizing companies for less than 3 percent of unauthorized releases of air pollution between 2011 and 2016. State leaders have also backed President Donald Trump’s environmental regulations rollbacks, after Paxton repeatedly sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) throughout former President Barack Obama’s tenure. At least 19 of those lawsuits involved air and water quality.

That history has left advocates skeptical about the government’s commitment to holding ITC accountable. Moreover, additional pollution concerns are mounting after a containment wall surrounding the ITC fire site breached, releasing around 20,000 gallons of water into the Houston Ship Channel. That water is believed to be contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — toxic chemicals that can cause cancer.

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“Deer Park residents will be living with the health and safety impacts of the plume of pollution from the fire itself for decades,” said Bryan Parras, a Gulf Coast organizer with the Sierra Club, in a statement. “What else has to happen before our local elected officials will act appropriately to protect our health, our community, and our clean water?”

The Harris County Office of Emergency Management has said it will remain open 24 hours a day until the potential for future accidents ebbs. Several town halls are meanwhile set for the next few days to address the impacts associated with the events, including two set to take place on Saturday.

In addition to the Texas lawsuit, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has also opened its own investigation into the ITC fire. That effort could be short-lived, however, as Trump has repeatedly sought to eliminate the chemical oversight agency.