The city of Houston, Texas is often referred to as ‘the energy capital of the world.’ In addition to being home to oil and gas giants like BP America, ConocoPhillips and Shell, the Houston metropolitan area is dotted with petrochemical plants. Roughly 400 chemical plants employ 36,000 people, generating 40% of the nation’s chemicals and billions of dollars of net profit. This creates the niche for around 560 related companies to make equipment, technology, and hazmat clothing that the plants need. Potential six-figure salaries and promised stability make jobs in this industry very alluring. Undoubtedly, the petrochemical industry has helped make Houston the 34th largest contributor to the United States GDP as of 2018.
This fact seems to be a source of pride, as dozens of American flags wave at the vehicles barrelling down southeast Houston highways. They rise high, tattered and whipped, over mazes of metal that dip around corners and jab into the sides of large spherical tanks. Pillars of rusty machinery stand intensely next to the flag poles, exhaling constant breaths of thick, white clouds that run out into the interstate, torn apart by the cars.
The clouds bring with them the stench of rotten eggs and ammonia. People sit upon groaning motorcycles, without so much as a hand over their mouth or a helmet upon their head. “The chemicals aren’t toxic,” says a sixty-year-old man in the city of Pasadena, Texas. “They can be in high doses, but the factories do an alright job of maintaining what is let out and how much. I trust them for the most part,” and then he laughs suddenly, flashing black and green teeth, “This place was actually called ‘Stink-adena’ in the 70’s, because of all the asbestos the paper companies were letting loose,” and he explains that since then, environmental regulations have forced them to relocate their factories elsewhere, “but the petrochemical companies are much more modern and safe.”
As he spoke, the nitrous oxide concentration near Pasadena, Texas, measured 40ppb — almost half of what would be necessary for a shelter-in-place, according to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, or TCEQ. Nitrous oxide is known to cause headaches, breathing difficulties and corroded teeth.
The last petrochemical plant fire Pasadena experienced was on May 19th, 2018, when a faulty line safety valve leaked flammable ethylene into the factory, causing a flash explosion that seriously injured 21 personnel. Kuraray American Eval, the company responsible for the fire, was not penalized.
Ten minutes away, the citizens of Deer Park, Texas, were breathing in the same amount of nitrous oxide. The toxic gas wafted over to Pasadena from a chemical fire in Deer Park that burned for four days — from 10 AM on March 17th, 2019, to the afternoon of March 21st, 2019 — in the Intercontinental Terminal Company, ITC, plant. The plant offered no explanation as to how the chemical Naphtha, kept in a tank next to flammable solvents, caught fire, subsequently spreading to eight other tanks containing the hazardous hydrocarbon Benzene.
Benzene, used in the production of plastics, resins, and synthetic fibers, measured at 190ppb in the air following the combustion — 10ppb beyond what would cause an immediate health detriment. Upon inhalation, Benzene inhibits the body’s production of blood cells, which can cause immediate anemia by loss of red blood cells in bone marrow and an immune system failure by loss of white blood cells. For anyone within a 1.5-mile radius of the ITC factory, these effects were felt in a sudden wave of dizziness and nausea.
Despite serious health risks, ITC failed to alert Deer Park of the fire for up to two hours. “Nobody told us anything, at first,” a young woman said behind the counter of a nearby gas station: “we knew there was a fire because we heard the explosion and saw the big plume of black smoke. It started smelling terrible, so we shut off the AC units. We knew what the procedure was, but nobody from ITC walked over here and said to us, ‘Shelter-in-place, there’s Benzene in the air.’ It was just common sense.”
Only when she turned on the TV and saw the news reports did she realize there was a shelter-in-place order. No one from ITC ever approached the gas station, which was so close to the plant that if a stone was thrown by someone standing at the station’s doors, it could hit one of the metal tanks. The only word the young woman received was a call from the company that owns the gas station, instructing her to keep the store open for customers. That night, when she took a shower, the water made her skin itch and burn. The steam nearly made her collapse. The run-off from the specialized foam used to put out chemical fires had leached into the water supply, contaminating it with carcinogenic compounds. Fire department personnel and hazmat teams had failed to block sewage drains or set up portable dykes for collection, which let the foam seep into water supplies.
The next day, March 18th, 2019, the ITC made the assessment that there was no immediate threat to the citizens of Deer Park. With affirmation from hazmat teams and University of Texas toxicologists, the shelter-in-place order was lifted. The young woman’s coworkers, however, failed to show up to their shifts.
“Their husbands work in the ITC factory,” she said beneath the music playing in the store, “they all evacuated. They knew how bad it was, they knew how dangerous it was. It was the Benzene they were afraid of. They work with it, and if they have to wear masks and suits to work near it in tanks, how could we think it’s safe for us to breathe while it’s burning?”
Her coworkers, like several other citizens of Deer Park, weren’t anywhere near the town. Untrusting of the reports by ITC, they had taken leave of their homes and businesses to seek shelter in the city. Because of this absence, most were surprised to hear that the ditches full of the run-off from the specialized foam used to put out the fires had made contact with a solvent tank and caught fire on March 22nd, 2019. The fire was extinguished the following day.
The flames from the second fire were large enough to reach the seats of Texas politicians. Investigations into the ITC’s compliance with air quality laws found that reports had been falsified since 2009. Since June of 2017, ITC had failed to even turn on their monitoring equipment to record the levels of emissions.
On the same afternoon that the runoff fire was contained, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an environmental lawsuit against the company for its failure to comply with the Texas Clean Air Act. For each day a violation was committed — in the form of “nuisance,” “unauthorized air pollution,” “unauthorized outdoor burning at a site,” and “unauthorized visible emissions”– a fine could range between $50 – 25,000.
“Christ, that’s nothing,” reacted a Deer Park resident, “when your company makes double-digits in the millions, that doesn’t even touch you. It won’t even come close.”
The trust in ITC dwindles as crimes against the environment continue to be exposed. For example, ITC was fined $18,300 in July of 2017 for releasing more than ten times the permitted amount of cyanide into the San Jacinto river basin. In 2009, after ITC had failed to conduct proper maintenance on their equipment, 6,000 lbs of 1,3-butadiene, a gaseous compound carcinogenic to humans, escaped into the air, resulting in a $4,251 fine. Later in 2009, Harris County sued ITC for $32,500 after it released 8,000 lbs of toluene, a hydrocarbon known to cause deprivation of oxygen to the human cells, into the environment.
Though these fines are small in comparison to the several million-dollar profits ITC makes, it is still a celebration that action was taken at all. Only 2-percent of companies who violate the Texas Clean Air Act are ever fined, and more often than not, companies are not even cited for investigation.
These fires, unfortunately, are not an uncommon occurrence. For example, the ExxonMobil oil refinery in Baytown, Texas, exploded on March 18th, 2019, just one day after the ITC fire. Again, the scene was the same — an intense explosion that shook buildings, the plume of black smoke, and the lack of action by the company. No shelter-in-place order was implemented, and the petrochemical byproducts that ignited were not named but were determined to be ‘non-toxic.’ Because of the chaos happening in Deer Park, the incident was swept under the rug without so much as an air quality report from the factory following the combustion. As of the publication of this article, ExxonMobil remains unpenalized.
Texas citizens began raising more eyebrows at the safety of these plants when the KMCO Chemical Plant in Crosby, Texas, exploded in an intense ethanol-fueled fire that killed one and critically injured ten other personnel. The explosion took place on April 2nd, 2019, just three weeks after the ITC fire. A man in a gas station claimed the same story as the young woman in Deer Park — no one from KMCO approached the station, despite it being within the radius of concern from the plant. A huge funnel of black smoke rose out from the factory, raining down clumps of soot as large as a fist. The AC vents were turned off, but no official shelter-in-place order was called for hours.
Soon after the fire, one of the workers injured slapped KMCO with a lawsuit for $1 million dollars worth of damages, claiming that the company was aware of a leak within the check valve on a high-pressure line containing the flammable compound isobutylene, which sparked the fire. It is the fourth lawsuit of its kind filed by an injured personnel member. It has since surfaced that the Occupational Health Safety Administration had cited KMCO for 66 violations from 2010-2013 for its failure to appropriately manage hazardous chemicals, waste and emergency response. The TCEQ filed 11 violations against KMCO in 2013 for excessive pollution of carbon monoxide and failure to record these levels. The EPA fined the company $3.3 million dollars after an employee made false entries of air quality reports between 2008-2012.
Even with the execution of safe and responsible practices, catastrophes are inevitable due to the nature of these chemicals. Take for example the Arkema Ammonia plant that caught fire in Crosby, Texas, on August 31st, 2017. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Arkema was prepared for the combustion of their organic peroxide tanks due to severe flooding. Organic peroxide needs to be kept at a temperature less than 18 degrees Fahrenheit, or else it denatures into a flammable compound. An evacuation plan was established for a 1.5-mile radius, which would be implemented as soon as the fire was detected. At 2 AM, floodwaters knocked out power to both the primary and emergency refrigeration units attached to the peroxide tanks, subsequently causing an explosion. After a few days, the area was deemed ‘safe,’ despite a considerable amount of noxious toxins found in the air, and 23,000 lbs of contaminants spilled onto the soil.
When asked about what improvements could be made to ensure the safe operation of these factories, citizens around the area suggested that a more educated workforce would help prevent accidents. Such was the case in the Tri-Chem Specialty Chemicals fire on March 15th, 2018, when a worker caused combustion of sodium chlorite after scraping it on the ground with a lid, killing himself and critically injuring two other personnel. He had been unaware of the flammability of the compound and was not given a warning by any labeling on the chemical’s container. The family of the man has since filed a lawsuit.
Few citizens around the plants wanted to see the reports of the chemicals they were breathing on that day. “It is what it is,” said a Lynchburg resident, “if you told me what was inside my McDonald’s burger, I’d still eat it. I don’t want to know.”
“The economic benefit does not outweigh the impact on our environment,” said a waitress in Deer Park, “it’s corporate greed. There isn’t any individual who can stop them. They run our lives.” She looks desperately out the window towards the ExxonMobil plant that had caught fire in March, and earlier in 2016, “It’s not worth it.”
To see the air quality assessments, visit www.tceq.texas.gov. To see tap water assessments, visit www.water.usgs.gov. To learn about alternative energy resources, visit www.energy.gov. To learn how to volunteer for environmental cleanup projects, visit www.nature.org/en-us/.
Houston: Economy, city-data.com
Oil and Gas Companies in Houston, TX, modalpoint.com
Investigators still not cleared to enter ITC fire site, Harris County Press
Facts about Benzene, CDC
Best Practice Guidance for Use of Class B Firefighting Foams, Fire Fighting Foam Coalition
Texas AG Ken Paxton Sues ITC over Deer Park Fire, Houston Business Journal
Fire contained at Exxon’s Baytown facility, Houston Chronicle