A Houston Chronicle attempt to get more info about the surprise chemical warehouse fire that turned Spring Branch Creek blood red earlier this year has been denied by the city, writes Matt Dempsey this week. The city has reportedly appealed to the state attorney general’s office to block the records request, as well as the paper’s broader request for “the name and address of every facility that files a hazardous material inventory form.”
The early May fire spread from a residence on Laverne St., igniting still-unquantified amounts of still-unnamed chemicals stored at the Custom Packaging & Filling warehouse behind it — a business that didn’t show up on the list of storage facilities the Chronicle was able to compile from local emergency planning groups, after the city and state blocked a previous request for similar info last year. The blaze left some firefighters with chemical burns and respiratory issues, and left stretches of nearby waterways decorated with festive biohazard signs and oil booms as the EPA did what they could about the mixture of pesticides and whatever else was killing the fish that drained from the site.
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Knowing Your Neighbors
The image above, showing a fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN) facility loitering as close as 529 ft. from the edge of an unidentified school campus, appeared on slide 13 of a US Chemical Safety Board presentation in Waco last week. But where is this place? And where are the other Texas locations where similar facilities storing large quantities of ammonium nitrate are sited within half a mile of a school? The Board warns that there are 18 such cozy-ups in Texas, but doesn’t identify their locations — even the image shown above, grabbed from Google Earth and outlined, omits any street labels.
The Waco presentation talked through the safety agency’s recently released findings on the 2013 explosion in West, Texas (located in Central Texas). A school and a nursing home were among the nearby buildings that received serious damage from the fertilizer blast, which killed 15 people and injured hundreds; the safety board report indicates that holes in that city’s zoning laws allowed the storage facility to be slowly grandfathered into a residential area.
Finding out where chemical storage facilities are located, and what they store, is now more of a fun guessing game than it was before the West explosion: In 2014, then-attorney-general-now-governor Greg Abbott’s office ruled that state Tier II data, which documents hazardous chemical storage at private facilities, would no longer be accessible to the public. But those open records weren’t really necessary, not if you’re really trying to find the facilities: “You know where they are, if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters.
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West Explosion Aftermath
HOW HOUSTON’S AIR GOT BETTER During the past decade, Houston’s notoriously polluted air has become — well, if not quite good, then not quite as bad, says NPR’s Richard Harris. (Pay no attention to what that ozone app may or may not tell you.) How? Well, it seems that pollution regulators in the early aughts had been worrying about all the wrong gases: “They were going all-in against [only] one of the pollutants that create smog, while downplaying the role of other emissions from the petrochemical plants,” reports Harris. “Barges carting chemicals up and down the [Ship Channel] were leaking. . . . And some types of storage tanks were leaking as well. . . . It turns out that routine day-to-day emissions were not the biggest problem.” Since then, regulations targeting those chemicals, like ethylene — as well as the use of infrared cameras that can spot them — appear to have made a difference: Port of Houston Authority employee Dana Blume tells Harris: “I can look out of my office window now and almost every single day see downtown.” [NPR; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Flickr user stmu_mike
WHERE ALL THOSE NEW CHEMICAL PLANTS ARE GOING It’s Houston’s plastics boom! “Chemical companies from around the world are flocking to the Houston area,” declares the Houston Business Journal, “to take advantage of vast amounts of cheap natural gas, which is used as a chemical feedstock.” The publication counts 8 new or expanded facilities. This handy map shows where they’re headed: Baytown (a new ethane cracker at Chevron Phillips Chemical and expanded ethylene and polyethylene facilities at the ExxonMobil plant), Old Ocean on Hwy. 25 (2 new polyethylene facilities, also for Chevron Phillips), Freeport off Brazosport Boulevard (an ethylene cracker for Dow Chemical), 8280 Sheldon Rd. in Channelview (an expansion of LyondellBasell’s existing ethane facility), 1515 Miller Cut-Off Rd. in La Porte (expanding LyondellBasell’s ethylene plant there), near Alvin on FM 2004 (more ethylene processing at INEOS’s Chocolate Bayou plant), and Clear Lake (a new methanol production plant at the existing Celanese facility). Welcome! [Houston Business Journal] Map: Houston Business Journal
PICKING UP CASH FOR THE CHEMICAL SPEW How did Harris County government swing half a million dollars in cash from Shell Chemical? The company is turning over that amount as part of a settlement covering 5 unreported chemical releases between April 2008 and March 2010 at the company’s Deer Park plant on Hwy. 225 just east of Beltway 8. According to Harris County’s lawyer on the case, Shell Chemical also made an “important concession,” which will likely result in more advance warning of similar future windfalls headed our way: Shell says it’ll now alert the county’s local pollution control office, and not just state officials, of “pollution events.” [Pasadena Citizen]
IF THE SILO’S ROCKIN’, DON’T COME A-KNOCKIN’ The strange noises and clouds that’ll be emerging over the next 6 months from the Bayport Polymer plant at 12001 Bay Area Blvd., a few miles south of the La Porte Municipal Airport, are nothing to worry about, LyondellBassell wants you to know. Just a little demolition work: “Periodically during the coming months, people close to the facility might detect rumbling noises, loud thuds, vibrations or dust clouds. ‘We will continue to communicate to our community in advance via the CAER Line, CAP groups and E-Merge/E-Notify when work is being done that our neighbors might notice. We apologize for any inconvenience this situation may cause,’ stated a company press release.” [Bay Area Citizen]
COMMENT OF THE DAY: CLEAR LAKE CITY CLEANS UP NICELY “Is there a discount [for homes near chemical plants]? Hell yes! And it’s for lots of reasons: 1) real or perceived pollution, 2) real or perceived high crime, 3) low elevations, 4) higher property insurance rates, 5) fewer nearby white collar jobs, and 6) living there indicates to snobs that you’ve got a low social status.
Most of the discount is unwarranted, but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look at Clear Lake City; parts of it are only about 1.5 miles from the nearest chemical plants. It was developed upon depleted oil fields and is adjacent to still-active fields. (It was developed by a subsidiary of Exxon!) It’s adjacent to an airport. It has a low elevation. But all that stuff is out of sight, out of mind, and so there’s no stigma.” [TheNiche, commenting on House Shopping in the Chemical Discount Zones: Finding Houston’s Less-Toxic Neighborhoods]
HOUSE SHOPPING IN THE CHEMICAL DISCOUNT ZONES: FINDING HOUSTON’S LESS-TOXIC NEIGHBORHOODS “A commenter on your blog who says he works at a chemical plant recently wrote that a neighborhood 1 mile from a chemical plant ‘is never going to be an “OK” neighborhood.’ Is there a single citywide map that shows where all these plants are, so I can find a place to live accordingly? And how far do I have to be from a chemical plant to be ‘OK’? 5 miles? 20? I presume there’s no absolute answer. But there’s got to be a de facto ‘discount’ on homes in neighborhoods that are within certain radiuses of the toxic stuff, right? If so, how far do the discount zones extend? Could someone draw that map for me?” [Swamplot inbox]
COMMENT OF THE DAY: WE’RE FROM THE TEXAS MEDICAL CENTER AND WE’RE HERE TO HELP “Given all the refineries, industrial plants, chemical plants, railroads, stagnant swamps and cesspools, traffic pollution, and the like that plague this hellhole of a town, it is a freaking wonder that Houston doesn’t lead the nation in cancer cases.” [Random Poster, commenting on Today’s Odor in Baytown Is Brought to You by ExxonMobil]
HOW THE TCEQ HELPS HOUSTON AIR STAY SO FRESH AND CLEAN Combing through emissions reports for 20 local refineries and chemical plants from February 2003 through October of this year, reporter Chris Vogel notes how the peculiar accounting method employed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality seriously underrepresents Houston-area emissions events: “In slightly more than six and a half years, the 20 plants pumped out 4,864,730 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 452,080 pounds of carcinogens and a total of 20,716,547 pounds of pollutants during emission events . . . The Press discovered that individual chemicals at the 20 facilities exceeded the limit 12,701 times during the six and a half years. [But] TCEQ documents obtained through an open records request for the 20 plants show that the agency found 469 violations over the past six and a half years, 240 of which listed excess pollution during an emission event as the reason. Those 240 violations represent less than 2 percent of the number of times that individual pollutants exceeded their limit during emission events. Many people, including former TCEQ Commissioner Larry Soward, see this as one of the ways TCEQ gives industry a big break.” [Houston Press]
Here’s a view from a Seabrook resident’s home this morning, looking across the way to the American Acryl acrylic-acid plant at 11600 Port Rd. off Old Texas 146, less than a mile east of the newer Hwy. 146. A loud chemical explosion is certainly a lot to get excited about in the morning, but people in the area may just want to go back to bed:
Area residents were asked to shelter in place after the blast, but that recommendation was lifted by 11 a.m. Officials said the blast involved toluene, a toxic substance that can cause nausea and tiredness in low to moderate levels.
However, in a recorded message company said the explosion did not cause a release of the chemical.
Update: From NASA engineer Jim Thompson, here’s a collaborative map showing the observations of people nearby, including a photo of the blast as seen from the Johnson Space Center.
Photo: Twitpic user nelagster
COMMENT OF THE DAY: IT’S WHAT’S INSIDE THAT COUNTS “Houston ugly? Hell no. Houston is real. Houston has the testicular fortitude to manufacturer [goods] and chemicals that everybody wants but no one wants made near them. Same with Beaumont, Port Arthur, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge…..I’ll take Houston gladly over cities that are completely obsessed with looking good. . . .” [kjb434, commenting on Smaller Signs in Houston’s Future]
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6btY7WqNBM 400 330]
Frustrated that his occasional reports on area petrochemical-plant emissions events haven’t received more attention, Banjo Jones of the Brazosport News (aka former Chronicle reporter Steve Olafson) resorts to video. His first feature: the odorous results of a power outage this past Sunday at the Chevron Phillips chemical plant in Old Ocean. That’s in Brazoria County, about an hour’s drive southwest of Houston.
That beautiful flare glowing from atop ExxonMobil Chemical’s Olefins plant in Baytown last Thursday night wasn’t just a pretty New Year’s display for the city. It came with a couple of bonuses: two “not specifically authorized” releases, including 6,857 pounds of benzene, plus a bunch of other fun toxins.
Not to be outdone, the nearby ExxonMobil oil refinery decided to celebrate the new year in its own special way, releasing a bouquet of smelly agents including 3,010 lbs. of neurotoxicant carbonyl sulfide into our lovely Gulf air.
Now when Houston visitors ask you why the east side of the city has an odor reminiscent of cooked cabbage, you’ll be able to explain why.
Meanwhile, two environmental organizations are interrupting the normal course of business over in Deer Park with a pesky lawsuit:
“On average of more than once a week for at least the past five years, Shell has reported that it violated its own permit limits by spewing a wide range of harmful pollutants into the air around the Deer Park plant,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas.
Photo of Baytown sunrise: Bill Jacobus
Here’s another fine item sure to light up the interior of any sophisticated home, but also certain to warm the hearts of patriotic Houstonians as well. It’s the Firevase, a beautiful ceramic container for flowers or flames from Plodes Studio.
The Firevase is another original decorative piece from the mind of John Paul Plauché, a local designer with a remarkable ability to work images of the Houston landscape into his creations.
Plauché calls the Firevase an “indoor or dense-city version of a firepit.” So much nicer than that mock or simply unused fireplace, no? According to Plauché, the firevase runs on a nontoxic clean-burning alcohol gel-fuel can called Sunjel:
The Firevase attempts to bring everything you enjoy about an outdoor firepit to your tabletop or somewhere where you can’t have a firepit. It’s another thing I enjoyed growing up in a small town just east of Houston. It’s about scale [and] my past experiences of living in dense apartment buildings [where you] simply cannot have such amenities . . .
The vase’s tripod shape is inspired by two kinds of plants: the kind that grow in the ground, and the kind that sprout near Pasadena and on Houston’s scenic eastern reaches:
It can be a seasonal affair if you’d like. Fire in the winter and flowers in the summer. Its shape is inspired by root branching systems, and the stark nature of chemical plant structures that can found off hwy 225.
Refineries, chemical plants, flares, and flowers: at last, interior designers discover Houston’s true local style! Below the fold: more photos of this hot item, plus how you can light up your own home with one for the holidays.
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