Lawmakers target lapses in Deer Park fire response, lax regulations
AUSTIN — Lawmakers on Friday grilled the director of the state’s top environmental agency and local government officials on whether Texas laws are doing enough to protect the public from incidents like the Deer Park chemical fire.
Over about three hours, members of two legislative committees in the Texas House pressed for more information on failures exposed by the March 17 fire. Those included a lack of critical information for the public in a timely manner and what some described as lax regulations that allow polluters to keep a clean record.
Rep. Mary Ann Perez, D-Houston, read transcripts of 911 calls and news reports from within the first hour of the fire in which local officials did not know what chemicals were burning at the tank farm owned by the Intercontinental Terminals Co., or what effect they were having on the air quality.
That information should have been released by ITC minutes after the fire started, she said, but instead the public and emergency responders waited nearly an hour for details, as residents were ordered to remain indoors.
“That was very disturbing to me because I would imagine you would need information timely enough to know, No. 1, what was burning in order for you to call a shelter-in-place?” Perez said. “In a best case scenario, how soon would you like to know what’s burning?”
Perez and other lawmakers suggested companies should be required to report basic information about chemical fires almost immediately.
But while some pushed for such change, Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton said he was proud of the overall response and doubted anything could have been improved. Mouton blamed residents for spreading misinformation on social media.
“I don’t think legislation’s going to solve this,” Mouton said about the response time, adding later, “whether it be here on the state level or Washington.”
Mouton said legislative changes dictating response protocol could be an overreach by the state government into local matters.
“I respectfully disagree,” said Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington. “I think local control is really important, but when it comes to the safety and security of the human beings, the people of Texas, I think potentially we may need to do some sort of legislation to set certain standards for those emergency operations and decision points.”
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Director Toby Baker was more open to the idea as Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Houston, pressed him on whether regulatory laws are effectively holding companies accountable. The cause of the fire has not been determined; investigating agencies include the Harris County fire marshal’s office and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
“When the cause of the fire is ultimately identified, I commit that we’re going to look at what overlays with our permitting and enforcement process,” Baker said. “If there’s something administratively or statutorily that needs to be changed, we will be looking at those options.”
Baker said in the short term, the agency has asked for funding for handheld air monitors and mobile monitoring units as well as iPads and software that would allow TCEQ to upload air quality data in real-time. The agency currently writes measurements down on paper and transcribes them to computers with a delay of up to two hours.
During a similar hearing Thursday, state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, told Harris County officials that they, too, should request state funding for monitoring equipment before the end of the legislative session.
Another tense moment arose Friday when Rep. César J. Blanco, D-El Paso, questioned Baker about how ITC could retain a satisfactory rating from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency despite repeated violations. ITC has been cited for violations of the federal Clean Water Act in 9 of the past 12 quarters.
A bill Blanco filed, House Bill 4087, would eliminate the state’s so-called “affirmative defense” program, which exempts polluters from some financial penalties if the impact is not considered excessive.
“My point is Texas really talks tough about going after polluters, but the reality is we have a mechanism — do you not agree? — that is currently in our books that allows polluters to escape liability,” Blanco said.
Baker said he thinks the program works and that “outside of what I would call the bad actors, companies work hard to try not to pollute.”
Erin Zweiner, D-Driftwood, referenced a September 2017 order from TCEQ that found that ITC failed to prevent an unauthorized emission of over 1,509 pounds of benzene, a carcinogen. Zweiner said the agency determined that the company reaped an economic benefit of about $6,900 over the period of the leak but levied a fine of just under $4,000.
A bill Zweiner authored, House Bill 3035, would ensure pollution penalties are at least equal to the economic benefit of noncompliance.
“My question to you is what is the incentive for companies like this to stay in compliance if it’s more cost-effective for them to not be in compliance and if TCEQ takes 19 months to follow up on the violation of the penalty?” Zweiner said.
Baker agreed that 19 months is long but said investigations are time-intensive. He said the agency receives many complaints and must look into each one.
As investigations into the Deer Park fire unfolds, Baker said he would be interested to know what action ITC took immediately after the fire and if there was there more they could have done.
“I think a lot of us know there was more they could do,” said Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park.