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Watson Grinding & Manufacturing

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.

County files lawsuit over Watson Grinding explosion

As well they should.

Harris County and state officials entered the fray Thursday, bringing civil charges against Watson Grinding and Manufacturing in the explosion that left two dead and damaged 450 structures last week in west Houston.

The county has asked a judge to impose an immediate halt on all activity at the company until the site and surrounding area are deemed safe from fires and explosions. Officials also want a detailed inventory of materials on the premises as well as all air, water and soil samples and studies. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is also a party to the suit, as required by law.

[…]

The county lawsuit says Watson violated environmental, regulatory, nuisance and common law following the explosion involving “ultra-hazardous chemicals” Friday at its Gessner facility. It says the company violated the Clean Air Act by exposing the public to unauthorized emissions, imperiling public health, general welfare, physical property, basic air resources and visibility. The county also states Watson created a public nuisance and violated Texas code by failing to report dangerous emissions and through unauthorized outdoor burning and air pollution.

Watson discharged air pollutants into the atmosphere including propylene and byproducts of combustion when a 2,000 gallon tank exploded, the lawsuit says.

“Flying glass and debris injured many residents while they slept,” court documents say. “As a result of the blast, many nearby residents cannot occupy their damaged homes while others now live in damaged structures.”

As of Thursday, the emission event had not been reported to the TCEQ or to Harris County Pollution Control, according to the county.

“Watson’s use of propylene was an ultra-hazardous activity and the company failed to exercise its duty of care to protect the public,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a draft of a news release, “particularly when the facility is located in a neighborhood.”

The lawsuit says Watson officials were negligent in failing to maintain equipment and properly store chemicals. Its failure to properly train, supervise and monitor employees endangered lives and damaged property, according to a draft copy.

“Due to the high degree of risk involved it Watson’s conduct, Watson’s actual and subjective constructive awareness of this risk, the fact that Watson had been made aware of the probability and extent of the potential harm that could result from engaging in such conduct on numerous occasions by numerous governmental regulatory authorities, Watson continued to operate in a reckless manner demonstrating a conscious indifference to welfare and safety of others, including employees and residents of Harris County,” the suit says.

The county will seek exemplary damages for gross negligence, according to documents.

See here for the background. Other lawsuits are being filed as well; the more, the merrier, I say. Part of this, as the County Attorney notes, is to ensure that all evidence is preserved. I’m sure we’ll find out that there were even more problems at this place than firsts reported. Harris County has invested more resources in environmental protection, and there may need to be more beyond that. For now, let’s do all we can to figure this one out, and hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions.

How many explosions is too many explosions?

Unfortunately, we’re on track to find out.

It’s a scene that’s all too familiar to Houston residents.

Explosions, flames reaching into the sky, plumes of black smoke, calls to shelter in place, evacuations, injuries and deaths.

The explosion early Friday morning at a manufacturing plant was the latest deadly reminder of the potential danger posed by hazardous material facilities in the Houston area.

In 2019, there were at least five major chemical incidents in Southeast Texas.

[…]

The Houston area is home to more than 2,500 chemical facilities. A 2015 Houston Chronicle investigation found there was a major chemical incident in the greater Houston area every six weeks. The investigation found many facilities posed serious threats to the public but were unknown to most neighbors and largely unpoliced by government at all levels.

In November, the Trump administration rolled back a number of chemical safety regulations created in response to the 2013 West Fertilizer explosion that killed 15 and injured more than 200. A coalition of environmental groups sued to stop the rollback.

With those regulations off the books, companies will not have to complete third-party audits or a root-cause analysis after an incident. Companies also will not have to provide the public access to information about what type of chemicals are stored in these facilities either.

While the federal government weakened regulations, Harris County has taken a more aggressive stand with the petrochemical industry in recent months.  The county brought civil lawsuits and criminal charges to multiple chemical companies after incidents in 2019. This has led to a race to the courts as the state and the county fight over taking the lead in penalizing polluters.

I was awake and getting dressed when that explosion happened. It was loud enough that I thought it was something that happened in my house, and I’m a long way from the 4500 block of Gessner. All things considered, we’re damn lucky there weren’t more casualties.

The story goes on to list the other recent disasters, a rogues’ gallery that includes the likes of Intercontinental Terminal Company, KMCO, and the Exxon Mobil plant in Baytown. You can now add Watson Grinding & Manufacturing to that list. It’s just a matter of time before that list grows again.

And look, we all know the stakes of the 2020 election, but this list and the two parties’ responses to it are the stakes of every election. The Republicans roll back regulations that are in place to prevent and mitigate disasters, to hold the negligent companies responsible, and to inform the public of dangers in their midst. The Democrats support and enforce such regulations, and seek to make sure the people know about what’s out there. We know what we’re fighting for this year. Put “fewer giant explosions caused by under-regulated and uninspected facilities that contain all kinds of dangerous materials” high on the list of things we should be fighting for in 2022 and beyond.