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Energy & Environment

In Wake Of Houston-Area Chemical Fires, Texas Senate Panel Weighs Input On Stronger Storage Tank Regulations

The Senate Committee on Water and Rural Affairs took public testimony on a bill that would strengthen state oversight of above-ground drums that hold hazardous hydrocarbons.


Edmund D. Fountain/ProPublica/Texas Tribune
An aerial photograph of the Stolthaven Oil Tanking facility along the Houston Ship Channel.

Weeks after a massive fire at a Houston-area petrochemical storage facility garnered national attention, a panel of state lawmakers heard dueling testimony Monday night on a bill that would strengthen state oversight of above-ground tanks that hold petroleum products and hazardous chemicals.

Freshman 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 that they don't float away or otherwise fail.

Government regulation of storage tanks came roaring back into the spotlight last month when a leak at a Deer Park tank farm owned by Intercontinental Terminals Company sparked a massive fire that spread to almost a dozen more holding drums. There are thousands in the Houston area alone — all sizes, usually made of steel plates welded together.

State lawmakers already had been studying oversight of tanks following Hurricane Harvey, when at least 15 drums holding crude oil, gasoline and other hydrocarbons ruptured or malfunctioned. (A Texas Tribune investigation published a year before Harvey detailed research on the vulnerability — and patchy government oversight — of storage tanks.) A December report by the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee didn't make explicit recommendations, but said lawmakers should move to ensure "that storage tank designs along the Texas coast are protective of human health."

On Monday night 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 that the current standards fall far short of that goal. 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 blazes at tanks.

"Currently, large, above-ground storage tanks don't have performance standards and 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.

And Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen, who noted she worked in the oil and gas industry for 18 years before going to work for the county, said "there's not necessarily a regulatory agency coming in and performing inspections."

"Until something occurs or a complaint comes in, those things aren't looked at," she said.

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

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

"There are plenty of laws on the books against pollution so we have incentive and we work very hard to prevent spills and accidents," he said.

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 that are known to withstand floodwater.

Cory Pomeroy, vice president and general counsel at the Texas Oil and Gas Association, argued that the bill was outside the purview of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality because it imposes construction standards rather than environmental ones.

He said those are adequately set by the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group he described as "the preeminent standard-setting entity for the oil and natural gas industry."

Johnson, who proposed the bill, emphasized that it would require TCEQ to hold public hearings and gather input from the stakeholders as it crafts regulations.

"I'm just not seeing what the panic is about," he said. "The TCEQ is not known for being a hostile, left-wing organization. They're going to do a good job and I trust them."

Several high-ranking Republicans on the committee, including its chairman, Lubbock Republican Charles Perry, expressed support for strengthening oversight while making it clear they don't want to harm the oil and gas industry.

"I do want to make sure we don't make this overly burdensome," said Larry Taylor of Friendswood. But "we do need some legitimate standards."

Perry didn't call for a vote on the bill before the committee adjourned Monday night.

This piece was originally published in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.