ITC fire scrutinized during joint committee hearing

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Sunday will mark three weeks after a massive fire at the Intercontinental Terminal Company terminal in Deer Park. The fire led to school closures and shelter-in-place orders due to concerns about air quality from the chemicals. 

“In reviewing this over the last few days, it’s almost been a process reliving it,” Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton told legislators. 

Lawmakers with the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety and the Texas House Committee on Environmental Regulation sought answers about what the state can do to prevent future disasters like the ITC fire. They held a joint hearing at the Capitol Friday. 

“My big concern about a lot of this is the fact that what are we doing in investigating, in taking a look at these facilities, holding these facilities accountable?” Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, asked. “Normally in these situations, they’ll find out there’s some sort of maintenance issue that causes one of these events to occur or there was an operator error. Normally those are the things that take place. My question is if someone is not going out there and looking at these facilities and inspecting these facilitates and asking questions of these facilities, then we’re in a situation where we could have another one of these events that could occur at some point in time.” 

Toby Baker, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told Thompson there was an ongoing investigation from February of this year. Baker said there was another investigation from 2017 that was just concluded. However, he noted the tank that’s reported to be where the fire started has never had a violation attached to it. 

Legislators also voiced concerns over air quality and the response process. There was an issue with TCEQ’s air quality monitors not working for a while.  

Rep. Mary Ann Perez, D-Houston, outlined the gap in response time once 911 calls started coming in.

“My frustration with it is if you’ve got a chemical burning for 47 minutes and Mr. Mayor, I know this is no fault of yours or anyone else, but if you’ve got a chemical burning for 47 minutes and no one knows what it is, that means none of the citizens downwind knows what they’re breathing for 47 minutes,” Rep. Perez said. “That’s what I have a problem with.” 

Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, asked Baker what resources his agency needed in order to respond faster in situations like the ITC fire. 

Baker said TCEQ has requested state funding to reoutfit two of the department’s vans to turn them into mobile laboratory buses that can monitor air quality. He also said his agency could benefit from getting money to purchase devices such as iPads and a specific program that can help with reporting real-time air quality data and uploading it into their system. 

“When we get our handheld readings, we are actually having to write that on a piece of paper and then transcribe that,” he explained. “There is a software that runs through an iPad where you essentially put that data directly in and it goes to the cloud and it’s as close to real time as you can get as far as air monitoring data goes and we don’t have that technology capability right now.” 

Houston-area residents affected by the ITC fire as well as the KMCO fire gathered outside the Capitol prior to the hearing, since the committee only allowed invited testimony.

Several groups, including Texas Public Citizen, is asking for stricter regulations and mobile air monitoring of facilities with air pollution permits.

“The time to act is now,” Stephanie Thomas with Texas Public Citizen said. “This is not something to put off for an interim charge. The time to act is now.”

Currently, the work to control the ITC site is ongoing and there is still a potential for a fire, Baker told legislators. TCEQ’s team continues to monitor air and water quality. 

This hearing marks one of two this week into the chemical plant fire and legislators expect there will be more scheduled as the investigation continues. 

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