Energy & Environment

I Spent A Month Trying To Find Out What Chemicals Are Stored Near My Home. I Still Don’t Know

Kirk McDaniel wanted to find out what kind of chemicals were being stored near his Deer Park home. What came next was a circuitous, month-long process that wielded few results.

On March 17th, 2019, the ITC facility caught fire and burned for a week before it was extinguished.

Its been one year since the Intercontinental Terminals Co. storage facility in Deer Park caught fire, releasing toxic chemicals like benzene into the atmosphere for days. Kirk McDaniel is an intern with Houston Public Media, and a lifelong Deer Park resident. He had questions about the incident about which chemicals were stored at the facilities in the area. Answers weren't easy to come by.

One year ago, on March 17, a fire broke out at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. petrochemical storage facility in Deer Park. Over the following week, people all across the region watched with bated breath as first responders worked to extinguish the blaze.

As a lifelong resident of Deer Park, chemical storage plants and refineries were ubiquitous to me. I remember as a kid doing shelter-in-place drills in school and always having a sense of preparedness in the event of an explosion or spill. Last March, all of my notions of safety were challenged by the lingering smoke plume and unanswered questions.

In July, months after recovery began, Harris County released a multi-agency assessment of the county's ability to respond to emergency incidents. PENTA Consortium, a crisis management firm, was tasked with evaluating the county's preparedness in responding to incidents like the ITC fire.

From a citizen's perspective, I was able to see how county agencies are currently equipped to respond to such events, but also to see what actions have to be taken to be more prepared.

One of the many recommendations the analysis shared was to update and increase access to Tier II reporting.

Tier II reporting is "basically an inventory," according to Tracy Hester, an Environmental Law Professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

"It is a disclosure for facilities to let the fire department and emergency response authorities know what chemicals they have, where they are at, and how they are stored," Hester said.

In 1986, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act was signed into law. The act was aimed at preparing communities like South Houston, Deer Park and La Porte for chemical incidents.

EPCRA set standards for reporting chemical incidents to the correct local officials, and made Tier II reporting a requirement of facilities storing chemicals at a specific limit. On March 1 of each year, all facilities in the country that store non-hazardous and hazardous chemicals at a specific limit must compile any inventory that they have maintained over the last year into a Tier II report.

The report also includes specific qualities of the substance, such as whether it is corrosive or flammable, and any health hazards — what type of effect the chemical has on the human body.

By law, all Tier II reports must be submitted to the local fire department, the Local Emergency Planning Committee, and to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Facilities can face up to a $25,000 fine per day if they do not comply.

On March 17th, 2019, the ITC facility caught fire and burned for a week before it was extinguished.

The final element to EPCRA, the Community Right-to-Know part, is how the general public can access this information. After all, Tier II documents are public records. However, in the state of Texas, citizens interested in knowing what facilities around them handle are barred from accessing this information.

"A lot of that information now has been deemed in Texas to be confidential because it poses a security concern," Hester said.

Under the Texas Homeland Security Act, the state can refuse to provide records that contain information about "materials that could be made into" an explosive device.

I realized that this would be information that is hard to get but essential to answering the question: What chemicals are near my home?

To answer that question, I began with a public records request with the TCEQ. I requested the Tier II reports for 17 different facilities from 2015 to 2018. Twenty minutes after submitting my request, an attorney with the TCEQ responded that my request is denied stating that they are prohibited from disclosing "any information maintained by a governmental entity that is more than likely to assist in the construction or assembly of a terrorist weapon."

While the TCEQ was not going to release the documents, the attorney did say that I could obtain reports from the Local Emergency Planning Committee in my area, or from the facilities themselves.

I brought my search local. First, I contacted the planning committee in Deer Park, where I was given the same response as the TCEQ, but told to request it from the facility. The Greater Baytown committee told me that I could send in a records request, so I did. The Southeast Regional committee did not respond to multiple phone calls. Finally, someone with the Greater Houston committee gave me an email contact for where I should send my request.

Leaving government channels behind, I began calling these companies directly.

Hexion Inc. a chemical plant in Deer Park, had a phone number that took me to a home office out of state. The receptionist did not understand my request, but gave me the number to a manager at the plant, who, after some calls, did not pick up.

Next I called Praxair, a facility in La Porte. I was told that the company was unsure if it would be able to share Tier II reports with me, so I left my information and awaited a call back that never came.

The person I spoke with from Praxair did tell me that I would be able to find the Tier II reports for its facilities, and many other facilities, at the Deer Park Public Library.

At the library, in the far back corner, was a desk. Placed haphazardly on the desk were binders of copies of permitting documents that facilities filed with the TCEQ.

Within the permitting documents, I had my first success, although I didn't get a report. The permits included documents that detailed the types of chemicals that the facility dealt with. It was essentially some of the raw data that would be included in a Tier II report.

After exhausting all of my outlets to obtain this information, I faced the reality that the state has made it incredibly hard to get these documents. I wondered whether the hoops I was jumping through were also impacting local government's preparedness for incidents like ITC.

Chemical facilities that store chemicals are by law required to share their inventory with appropriate agencies.

Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia told me that preparing for terroristic threats does not prepare us for chemical fires or spills. Garcia echoed the PENTA analysis recommendation, saying that "the [Tier II] reports need to be more comprehensive, and easy for first responders to access," so in case there is an incident, they are able to properly respond.

Garcia had particular objections to the report itself.

He said that a historical report, like a Tier II report, is simply not "enough information to adequately support the local community that will ultimately be dealing with a catastrophic fire." An active report that shows what chemicals are stored on site, and at what quantities, is a more desirable way of preparing first responders, he told me.

When I asked Garcia if the public had a right to know this information, he said, "I think the public deserves to know as much as it needs to know."

"We at least need to know it at the time of an event," he said.

Tracy Hester, the environmental law professor from UH, said that his preference is for there to be more transparency than there is, currently, though not necessarily all information.

"People should know if they are located near a facility that is handling hazardous chemicals above a certain amount," Hester said. "I don't think they need to know which tanks they are stored in; they perhaps don't need to know what security measures are used to protect it because that might increase the vulnerability of that facility to bad actors."

But Hester concluded by saying that the Texas Homeland Security act has stripped the "right-to-know" out of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know act.

To my surprise, I did finally receive a Tier II report. It was a 2018 report from an ExxonMobil facility in Baytown. The document was more than 600 pages long, and told me everything about the facility and the chemicals stored on it.

But the document was, expectedly, very technical. To an untrained eye, it was overwhelming.

To this day, I still don't know what chemicals are stored near my neighborhood. Through my own experience, Tier II documents are incredibly hard to obtain. And my inability to understand the risks of my home don't give me the confidence I need to prepare myself for the next incident.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required

Share