Energy & Environment

2014 Year In Review: A Look At Toxic Spills And A Call For More Regulations

For the Texas oil and chemical industry, 2014 was a blockbuster year. It saw a surge in oil production and a boom in the construction of new petrochemical plants along the Gulf Coast. But environmentalists warned that stricter regulation is needed to prevent the boom from leaving a toxic legacy, especially in Houston, the center of the refining and chemical industry.

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A barge loaded with marine fuel oil sits partially submerged in the Houston Ship Channel, March 22, 2014. The bulk carrier Summer Wind, reported a collision between the Summer Wind and a barge, containing 924,000 gallons of fuel oil, towed by the motor vessel Miss Susan. [Caption and image credit: U.S. Coast Guard]

The year 2014 featured incidents that remind us that extracting oil and gas, refining it, making chemicals from it, and transporting it comes with risks.

On a Saturday in March, the pilot of a freighter and the skipper of a barge radioed to one another that they were about to collide in the Houston Ship Channel.

“I’m looking at you now, it don’t look good,” can be heard on a recording of the radio transmissions between the vessels.

The collision spilled 170,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Gulf of Mexico and onto nearby beaches. At a hearing held by the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board criticized the Coast Guard for not doing more to monitor ship traffic and head off collisions before they happened.

In the summer, there would be another hearing of a different sort.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to Galena Park to listen to public comment on new, tougher rules to reduce air pollution from industries. A woman who lives near the chemical plants, Yudith Nieto, took issue with politicians who testified that to reduce pollution would reduce profits.

“We are not just secondary to their investments,” Nieto testified.

It would also be the year that relief finally came to a neighborhood in south central Houston.

“Oh, I can’t stand it, the smell,” said resident Deseree Bellazer.

For years, an industrial site recycled chemicals smack dab between neighborhoods and next to a school. But the company went bankrupt. Neighbors complained of horrible odors and contaminated storm water that ran into their yards. Years passed. Then this fall, the federal EPA stepped in to clean it all up.

“If you sit next to it a little longer you’ll start getting a little nauseated. So we won’t do that,” said the EPA’s Gary Moore as he showed a reporter huge metal boxes holding the smelly petrochemicals.

The EPA hopes to have the site mostly cleaned up by February and those who live next door hope that the smells of a toxic legacy will be all but gone in 2015.

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Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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