Houston-area environmental experts share insight on petrochemical fire, barge collision

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Environmental groups called for greater communication and transparency during environmental disasters and stricter regulations for related industries during a pollution forum June 25.

Officials from the Harris County Pollution Control Services, Air Alliance Houston, Galveston Bay Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund and more gathered at the Bay Area Community Center in Clear Lake Park in Seabrook for a forum to discuss recent environmental disasters and their effects on the environment.

In March, a tank of chemicals at Intercontinental Terminals Co. caught fire and took several days to extinguish. The blaze and foam firefighters used both released harmful chemicals into the environment, experts said.

In May, two barges collided in the Houston Ship Channel near Bayport, spilling 378,000 gallons of gasoline in Galveston Bay, officials said.

During the events, there was a lack of information to residents and between first responders about what chemicals were involved or the threat posed to the public. During the ITC fire, it took an hour before emergency personnel knew what chemical was burning, Houston Chronicle environmental reporter Perla Treviso said.

Experts said Harris County, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and other entities must establish better lines of communication and allow the public to know about environmental disasters sooner so they can properly respond. Many residents were told there was nothing to worry about during the ITC fire while they were suffering from the acute symptoms of exposure to the harmful chemical benzene—including headaches and nausea—leading to confusion, said Lucy Randel, Air Alliance Houston board member.

“The messaging is very important,” Randel said.

Galveston Bay Foundation official Sarah Gossett Robinson agreed, noting certain environmental groups were not immediately forthcoming with data gathered after the disasters.

“If everybody was completely upfront … with the information they were finding … we would feel a lot more comfortable that enough was being done to address these issues,” she said.

During both disasters, environmental groups found elevated levels of benzene in the water and air. After the barge collision, thousands of dead fish washed up on Kemah shores, and water near Seabrook had benzene levels of 2,600 parts per billion, which is “astronomically” high, Environmental Defense Fund scientist Katie Moore said.

“Really just an incredible number,” she said.

Moore said there needs to be enhanced enforcement to prevent such disasters and enhanced monitoring to quickly and accurately inform the public of environmental dangers when such accidents do occur.

Resident Doug Peterson, who organized the event, said it is important for residents to be more informed about such disasters as the petrochemical industry continues to grow.

“It’s time that we start paying a lot more attention to these things,” he said.

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Jake Magee
Jake Magee has been a print journalist for a few years, covering topics such as city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be an editor with Community Impact. In his free time, Magee enjoys playing video games, jamming on the drums and bass, longboarding and petting his cat.
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