COMMENTARY Lucrativeindustryhas itshazards
The petrochemical business is not for the faint-hearted. You are going to be working with flammable materials and dangerous chemicals all the time, and usually in staggering quantities. It’s just not the safest way to make a living, or make a profit. Last week’s fire in Deer Park proved that, yet again.
That blaze at a chemical plant was nasty by any standard. For three days a plume of toxic smoke hung over the facility. Everybody driving by on I-10 or flying into Houston saw it. At the worst point, eight tanks with gasoline components were on fire. Then some of the chemicals and suppression compounds leaked into the Houston ship channel, adding water pollution to the list of problems.
Fortunately, no one was hurt seriously, though whoever breathed in some of that black air, at the site or downwind, could have some unpleasant surprises later on. But anytime something like this happens in a petrochemical facility, here or in Houston or Louisiana, you have to wonder if it could have been prevented.
Houston has had its share of these incidents in recent years, but Southeast Texas has been more fortunate. In fact, the safety record of this region is pretty good, considering how much product is being handled at so many places.
The Deer Park facility, Intercontinental Terminals Co., stores petrochemicals for big companies like Chevron and Phillips 66. Records show that it has been cited numerous times by federal, state and county regulators since 2009 for violating clean air and clean water regulations. Yet it has been fined only $65,000 for these violations. For a company like ITC, $65,000 is pocket change. It is less than the salary and benefits for one plant worker in one year.
Company officials might say that those violations weren’t that serious, and perhaps they weren’t. But then a blaze like this erupts, and people who live nearby will start to wonder if too many rules were being bent, or broken. Government officials will study this fire and eventually have a good idea of why it happened. They may already know. Taxpayers need to know too, ASAP.
Many regulations overlay risky industries like petrochemicals, and company officials invariably complain that they are too burdensome. Some are, and the Trump administration has been pushing across-the-board rollbacks in red tape more than any regime in U.S. history. Invariably, that leads to fears that too many regulations are being cut to undermine safety and environmental protection.
One thing the petrochemical business has going for it is its great profitability. Its blue-collar workers are some of the highest paid in the country, often making high five-figures or even going over the $100,000 threshold. The plants themselves make millions, or billions. Our roaring high-tech economy needs their products in larger quantities every year.
With a profit level like that, these plants don’t have to cut corners on safety. They shouldn’t want to, given the constant danger of fire and explosion. But if there’s a borderline call, their response should be, “Do it, and send me the bill.” Again, giving the overall safety record in Southeast Texas, that’s probably being done. But many workers and environmentalist also say that decision-makers in the industry sometimes consider minor fines a cost of doing business, just parking tickets to be paid and forgotten in on the path to profits.
As with so many issues, some kind of rational balance is needed. Every rule should have a reason, and silly ones should be dropped. But plants should err on the side of safety, because they work in an industry where catastrophic accidents could happen at any time.
While the ITC facility in Deer Park was still smoldering, a massive explosion at a chemical plant in eastern China killed nearly a hundred people and injured hundreds of other. China’s regulations are looser than ours, and this plant was described as one with a long record of safety violations. That’s not a good combination.
The Associated Press said of the accident: “The blast in an industrial park in the city of Yancheng, north of Shanghai, was one of China’s worst industrial accidents in recent years. State-run television showed crushed cars, blown-out windows and workers leaving the factory with bloodied heads.”
That’s the nightmare scenario for every major petrochemical facility, in China or Texas. That’s why safety can never be an afterthought, or an annoying thing you have to do because some bureaucrat wants you to do it. It must be something you want to do, because you know what might happen if you don’t.