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In March 2019, a massive chemicals fire broke out after a leak at a chemical tank farm in Deer Park spread to nearly a dozen other tanks.
A plume of smoke soon rose above the Houston skyline and lingered there for three days. Residents of Deer Park were forced to shelter in place due to air pollution risks, the Houston Ship Channel closed for three days, and millions of gallons of hazardous waste spilled on the ground and seeped into the water.
This chemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company facilities also reignited debate in the legislature over the state’s rapidly growing petrochemical industry, much of it in communities along the Gulf Coast. Texas. Thousands of these tanks, usually made of steel plate, are found in the Houston area alone, and state lawmakers had previously raised concerns after at least 15 tanks containing crude oil, gasoline and other hydrocarbons broke or malfunctioned during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Yet the 2019 legislative session ended without new regulations.
Two years later, the Legislature is set to approve Senate Bill 900 drafted by State Senator Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, which will create new standards on the type of tanks that will put so many people in his district in danger two years ago. It was passed by the Senate late last month and on Sunday evening received preliminary approval from the House.
“I am very proud of this bill,” Alvarado said. She said it took a long time to negotiate the bill with industry groups, but high-profile incidents like the ITC fire in her district forced the conversation.
“They knew I was going to call,” she says. “There were too many of these things that had happened.”
Several bills were introduced by Democrats this session to create new rules for the petrochemical industry. Few state rules apply to reservoirs, and none require construction standards to ensure that reservoirs can withstand severe hurricanes or major flooding.
Alvarado spent years negotiating with industry groups to draft safety standards that would address the most pressing concerns while not going too far to be disagreeable to the powerful oil and gas industry, whose opposition would be deadly in the face. the Republican-dominated Texas legislature. Before heading to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, the House still needs to grant a final approval, usually a formality. The Senate would then need to accept minor changes made by the House or ask a conference committee to resolve slight differences between the versions of the bill passed by each chamber.
Texas has a long list of rules on the books for chemical storage tanks, including requiring specific construction standards and plans to prevent spills, but they only apply to underground tanks and are intended to prevent contamination of underground aquifers. Above ground storage tanks are exempt.
The Texas Environmental Quality Commission can fine companies for releases or spills that harm the environment, but the agency previously told the Tribune that its rules do not require preparation in the event spill or any preventive measure. Tanks containing toxic and flammable chemicals are often, but not necessarily, built to standards set by the American Petroleum Institute, a powerful group in the oil and gas industry.
During a working session in September, TCEQ executive director Toby Baker told TCEQ commissioners he was frustrated with the agency’s limited power to regulate chemical plants before disasters hit. produce.
Senate Bill 900, if signed by the governor, would require the TCEQ to set new performance standards for large aboveground storage tanks (referred to as “ships” in the bill) aimed at protecting vessels. groundwater and surface water in the event of an accident or natural disaster. . For example, tanks will need to be fitted with remote shut-off valves, overfill protection and fire-fighting technology. “If these elements had been in place, it could have prevented the ITC fire,” Alvarado said.
The agency is due to set the rules by September 2023.
The Sierra Club wanted the regulations to go further. At a legislative committee hearing in April, Cyrus Reed, representing the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, said the rules should also include smaller tanks, requiring more frequent inspections and taking effect before 2023.
“If I thought we could go further, I would have done it,” Alvarado said in response to criticism during the April hearing. The legislation also allows companies to seek exceptions to the rules if they can prove to regulators that their reservoirs pose a low risk of floods, hurricanes, fires and explosions.
Jennifer Coffee, general counsel for the Texas Pipeline Association, said at the hearing that the group, which represents intrastate pipelines, has spent “countless hours” working with the Texas Chemical Council and the Texas Oil and Gas Association, two other powerful oil and gas interests. groups, to help Alvarado draft a bill that would include the security features she considered essential.
Negotiations between all groups were not easy, said Coffee
“What might be good for the chemical industry might not be good for petroleum,” she said.
Tank regulation has gained traction among lawmakers after high-profile chemical accidents sparked outrage among residents and regulators. John Beard, who runs the Port Arthur Community Action Network and has worked in the chemical industry for years, told lawmakers in April that the rules “are about protecting lives.”
After a series of chemical fires in Texas in 2019, Alvarado said he found much wider support from Republicans – especially current Texas House Chairman Dade Phelan, whose constituents were evacuated the day before. Thanksgiving Day in 2019 when several explosions rocked a TPC Group factory. in Port Neches. This explosion and incidents also forced industrial groups to come to the table to negotiate, Alvarado said.
“When incidents like this happen, we have a duty to react and change that, and that is what we have done,” said Alvarado.