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Houston: The Most Dangerous City
Vicki Wolf, February 2014, Photo/map Credits- Center for Effective Government

In Houston, TX, millions of people are potentially in danger of being harmed by a chemical facility accident similar to or much worse than the West Fertilizer Plant explosion last year. The city has 101 of the 472 high-risk chemical facilities in the United States. More than 20 facilities in the Houston area each put a million or more people at risk. Three facilities -- Rhodia Houston Plant, ALTIVA Greens Bayou and Agrifos Fertilizer Plant -- each put more that 3 million in harm’s way.

Maps Illustrate the Danger for Kids in Houston Schools
Last year, after the West Fertilizer Plant explosion, President Obama issued an executive order to solicit comments and suggestions for improving chemical facility security through public listening sessions. In February, two hearings were held in Houston. Maps to illustrate the chemical facility dangers in the Houston area were presented at the hearings conducted by the Environmental ProtectionAgency (EPA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Labor. The maps make it stunningly clear that hundreds of thousands of students are in danger every day they attend school. The maps show that, in the Houston area, 133 schools and several hospitals are within one mile of a high-risk chemical facility, potentially putting 101,720 students in danger. In the Manchester neighborhood alone, 27 schools are within one mile of a high-risk chemical facility, potentially putting 25,968 students in danger. In Texas City, 13 schools are within one mile of a high-risk chemical facility, potentially putting 7,049 students in danger.

Glaring Omission: No Listening Session in West, TX
Government agencies responsible for the listening sessions did not hold them where victims of the West Fertilizer Plant explosion that resulted from neglecting chemical safety and security are still suffering. Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) went door to door in West telling residents about the hearings in Houston. “Many agreed to go, but it was really bad weather in Houston,” says Melanie Scruggs, TCE Houston program director. Scruggs says she knew this canvas was going to be different from the usual door to door experience. “Some people had lost family members, and many people knew people who died in the explosion,” she says. “We planned maps where we were going, but there were no houses there. Some people are still living in motels.”

The TCE canvassers collected 75 letters from citizens to President Obama. The letters tell about how frightening the explosion was and of lives turned upside-down, people left with nothing -- no clothing, no transportation, no home. Some people said they drove by the fertilizer plant every day and never knew that there was anything dangerous there.

Political Will for Chemical Security Waxes and Wanes
Taking steps to improve chemical security has been put on and then taken off the national priority list time and again. Interest peaks when there is an accident. In West, Texas, it was too late for the 13 firefighters and two innocent bystanders who were killed in the explosion. Industry has succeeded in preventing regulation of chemical facilities, especially in Texas, the only state that doesn’t even require the international fire code that 47 states observe. According to Thomas Visco, Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG) program associate, such a fire code would require sprinkler systems and may have prevented the West Fertilizer Plant explosion. Juan Parras, co-founder of Texas Environmental Advocacy Services (TEJAS), had been working with a national coalition to explore ways to reduce the danger of high-risk chemical facilities before Lisa Jackson resigned from the Environmental Protection Agency. The effort had almost died. But then the West, Texas explosion last year sparked new interest, and President Obama issued the executive order to hold public listening sessions in communities throughout the country on chemical facility security.

Parras is hopeful that the hearings will result in good policies for improving chemical facility safety and security. At the Houston hearings, industry representatives insisted that no new regulations are needed -- that they can regulate themselves. Parras says elected representatives need to realize that self-regulation isn’t working and listen to the citizens they represent. “It’s pretty obvious to citizens throughout the country - the bottom-line is that elected officials do not listen to the communities they represent. It’s hard to say, but industry has a better hold on representatives than citizens do.”

Do Your Part to Shift Political Will in Favor of Safer Communities
There is still time to make your voice heard on the need for better chemical safety and security. Tell the EPA to increase standards for chemical safety, work harder to ensure responsible chemical storage and transportation, and mandate that companies replace dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives. For more information and to send your comments, visit TexPIRG - Take Action -Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIR).

Related reading:

Texas Campaign for the Environment

The Environmentalist: 12 Chemical Facilities Putting the Most Americans at Risk, Greenpeace

“Community Survey Reveals Health Impacts in Pavillion, WY Gas-field” - EarthWorks

EPA Summary of the Clean Water Act

Texas dotted with residents vulnerable to fertilizer plant accidents, Houston Chronicle

Bush and the West explosion: The untold story of deregulation of chemical plants, MSNBC

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