The ominous black plume of smoke that hung over the Houston area for days last month may be long gone, but Texas' chief environmental regulator told a panel of state lawmakers on Thursday that the fallout from the blaze at a Deer Park petrochemical facility is in full effect — and that danger remains.
"It is an ongoing event. We're still in response mode," said Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Texas Ports.
He added: "If I’m completely honest, there's still a fire risk."
A fire broke out at a sprawling, waterfront tank farm operated by Intercontinental Terminals Company on March 17 and flared up again days later, prompting cities and school districts in east Harris County to issue shelters-in-place and cancel outdoor activities amid poor air quality. Lawmakers had already called for hearings on the incident — and the state had already sued ITC — when another Houston-area chemical plant caught fire earlier this week, resulting in one death and multiple injuries.
"There’s a long road of investigation ahead," said state Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Republican from Conroe who chairs the port committee, at the beginning of Thursday's hearing. "It’s important that we understand what happened to the extent that we can, so we not only can work to mitigate the damage, but make sure an incident like this doesn't happen again."
Baker testified alongside officials from the state’s Department of Emergency Management and the Port of Houston Authority who detailed their agency's efforts to contain what has become a major environmental disaster at the ITC facility, which houses a variety of highly flammable petrochemical products ranging from lubricant oils to gasoline blends.
Baker, who noted there is still a significant amount of those substances on site, rattled off a variety of stunning figures to demonstrate the breadth of response to an incident he said is the most serious he's seen since Hurricane Harvey: Nearly 184,000 barrels of contaminated water collected, an estimated 100,000 barrels of petrochemical product spilled, hundreds of response boats and nearly 2,000 response personnel on the scene.
For days during the fire, the TCEQ assured residents that monitoring indicated the air was safe to breath. That later changed after the fire was extinguished and significant levels of the hazardous chemical benzene were detected in the air.
Baker said Thursday that benzene flare-ups continue to be a problem and that his agency will keep monitoring air quality until they diminish.
During the hour-and-a-half hearing, Creighton and the committee's vice chair, state Sen. Carol Alvarado — a Houston Democrat who represents part of the Deer Park area — honed in on response procedure, continued pollution concerns and economic impact due to the ongoing closure of part of the Houston Ship Channel. But they also asked officials what could be done to keep an incident like the ITC Fire from happening again, and how the state could help them respond more effectively if — and when — it does.
Alvarado stressed the need for timely and extensive air monitoring, which emerged as a major concern during the fire as there was a lag time in the posting of readings online and they were difficult to interpret. TCEQ's Deer Park air monitor also wasn't functioning when the fire broke out.
Baker reminded the committee of his agency's special request for state funds to purchase a new mobile air monitoring van and software that would allow TCEQ staff to take readings in real time, along with additional handheld air monitoring devices and iPads and laptops that would allow them to immediately upload that data. (They currently write them down on paper and input them later, he said.)
Harris County Fire Marshal, Laurie Christensen, said she is hamstrung by a state law that currently prevents inspectors from entering a property absent a complaint, request or explicit authority from a governing body — not that they would try to do so at the ITC facility; Christensen said it's still too dangerous.
Other county officials said the state needs to increase the amount companies can be fined for such incidents.
Rock Owens, Harris County's chief environmental prosecutor, told the committee he has sued both ITC and KMCO — the company behind the second fire — three times in the past decade for environmental infractions, including over the most recent incidents. In the case of ITC, he said he was able to secure about the maximum penalty allowed under state law — $25,000 per violation per day. That amounted to almost $25,000 in one suit and $100,000 in another, he said.
But he said it's clearly not been enough to deter them from doing whatever led to such serious incidents.
"We need to look at the enforcement scheme and process the state uses in assessing penalties against companies to make sure that they mean something," he said. "In many instances, small companies cannot pay large fines but companies like Intercontinental Terminals Company or KMCO certainly can pay more than what they’ve had to pay in the past and I think that’s a valuable lesson we can take from what’s happened here."
House lawmakers are scheduled to hold a similar hearing on Friday.