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What can Houston do about hazardous buildings?

It’s a good question, but there’s another question that has to be considered alongside it.

For the first time, Houston City Council members publicly floated proposals Wednesday for how the city can better protect its residents from explosions like the one at Watson Grinding & Manufacturing, which killed two people and damaged hundreds of homes.

Among the ideas: tighter thresholds for reporting chemicals, more inspectors for the fire department, or requiring companies to pay for and submit their own third-party inspections.

The suggestions raised at the Public Safety and Homeland Security hearing marked the start of what Mayor Sylvester Turner has promised will be a long, transparent discussion about how the city can better balance the safety of its neighborhoods with the city’s robust chemical industry. He said last week that he hopes that conversation will produce policy changes by the end of the year.

The region has had six major chemical fires since last March.

“This is only the beginning of a much-needed conversation on the issue of neighborhood safety when it comes to not only manufacturing plants, but the storage of chemicals and other potentially dangerous materials,” said council member Abbie Kamin, the committee’s chair.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña told the committee that Watson Grinding & Manufacturing, which had a 2,000-gallon tank of the chemical propylene that investigators have said fueled the Jan. 24 blast, was not functioning as a “high hazard” business, according to thresholds laid out by the International Building Code.

The facility fell into other categories, Peña said. They included business, storage and factory designations, according to the IBC standards. The company was also up to date on all permits, he said.

“It doesn’t mean that the other ones are not hazardous, it just doesn’t meet a certain threshold,” he said.

Lowering those thresholds is one possible response, as is tightening disclosure requirements. This is the start of the conversation – CM Kamin says there will be another hearing with the Regulatory and Neighborhoods Affairs Committee on March 26 – so there may be other ideas. This is all well and good and necessary, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough because the city has to be wary about what the Legislature might do if they decide that any tighter regulations on businesses like Watson Grinding are offensive to their doctrine and those of their overlords. Meddling in the affairs of cities is now official policy, so if the Republicans maintain control of the House, you can be sure that a response to any action City Council takes will be on the table. We get the chemical explosions we vote for, and we better not lose sight of that.

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One Comment

  1. David Fagan says:

    “if the Republicans maintain control of the House, you can be sure that a response to any action City Council takes will be on the table. We get the chemical explosions we vote for, and we better not lose sight of that.”

    Tying this to any type of partisan politics, Republican, Democrat, or any other, is so blindingly ignorant that it is absolutely scary.

    DO NOT FORGET after the May 31, 2013 disaster, the then Mayor Parker questioned a change in code, promised a lot of talk, and was there a change in code?
    Here is her take on the subject of changing codes:
    https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/amp/Firefighters-deaths-may-prompt-revised-city-fire-4589338.php

    If history repeats itself…….

    The Chronicle is owned by the Hearst Corporation, and this opinion piece is a direct descendant of yellow journalism itself.

    Houston has a chance to get better codes, maybe some zoning, don’t get blinded by petty partisan politics, no matter what side you’re on.