At the Capitol: Texas Senate panel weighs input on stronger chemical storage tank regulations

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Weeks after a massive fire at a Houston-area petrochemical storage facility garnered national attention, a panel of state lawmakers heard dueling testimony April 29 on a bill that would strengthen state oversight of above-ground petrochemical tanks.

State Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, authored Senate Bill 1446. It would require Texas’ environmental regulatory agency to develop and enforce standards for the design and operation of larger storage tanks in areas vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes to ensure they do not fail.

Government regulation of storage tanks came back into the spotlight in March when a leak at a Deer Park tank farm owned by Intercontinental Terminals Company sparked a fire that spread to almost a dozen more holding drums. There are thousands of tanks in the Houston area alone.

On April 29 at a hearing of another Senate panel, officials from environmental and citizen groups, as well as the city of Houston and Harris County, told lawmakers the current standards fall far short of the goal to make sure storage tank designs along the Texas coast protect human health. But officials from industry groups told the Water and Rural Affairs Committee that they are more than sufficient.

Loren Raun, the chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department, told the committee that the ITC fire “would have been extinguished quicker” and probably “not allowed to spread to additional tanks” if there had been standards in place for what kind of water pressure firefighters can use when addressing tank blazes.

“While the tanks can be inspected for basics, there’s clearly a need for performance standards to prevent the kind of disasters exemplified recently,” she said.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said “there’s not necessarily a regulatory agency coming in and performing inspections.”

Cyrus Reed, interim and conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, noted there are stricter regulations for underground storage tanks.

Don Lewis, an attorney representing the Texas Pipeline Association, said it is unfair to characterize storage tanks as unregulated.

Sam Gammage, general counsel for the Texas Chemical Council, said it could cost as much as $1.6 million to retrofit one tank with the kind of roofs known to withstand floodwater.

Johnson, who proposed the bill, emphasized it would require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to hold public hearings and gather input from the stakeholders as it crafts regulations.

Several high-ranking Republicans on the committee expressed support for strengthening oversight while making it clear they do not want to harm the oil and gas industry.

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