Chemical Safety Hearing Tour Makes Stop In Houston

Brandt Mannchen with the Houston Sierra Club addresses the chemical safety working groups during a hearing at the Harris County Department of Education.
Representatives of different federal agencies came to Houston today for a public hearing on chemical plant safety. It's the result of an executive order President Barack Obama issued last year after the deadly explosion in the town of West, Texas. Stakeholders here had plenty of input.

It’s been nine months since the explosion of a fertilizer plant in the town of West in central Texas.

In August of last year, President Obama issued an executive order titled “Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security.” Part of it is the creation of work groups consisting of members of a number of federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Jordan Barab is with OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and was part of the group at the hearing in Houston.

“We want to hear from people, especially people on the front lines of potential chemical disasters. A lot of these are people that live near chemical plants or they’re workers in chemical plants and these are the people that are probably most affected by chemical incidences, chemical releases.”

He says some recurring themes among commenters are stricter regulations of chemical plants and use of safer alternatives to the chemicals commonly used in plants and refineries.

Besides representatives of oil companies and individual stakeholders, several advocacy groups made their voices heard at the hearing.

Patricia Gonzalez is with the Pasadena chapter of the Texas Organizing Project. She’s worried about the environmental impact from the refineries in Pasadena.

“What’s happened in the last two years, I’ve grown nodules in my vocal cords and I’m wondering what am I breathing in to make me so sick that they added in with that other chemical that they are not telling us what it is.”

She wants the federal government to impose tighter regulations on refineries and require them to cut current emissions in half.

Barab, with OSHA, says he understands that some people are angry.

“They live right outside some of these chemical plants and a lot of them have been affected by chemical releases. They’ve been affected personally, their jobs, their homes, their children. Yeah, they are very involved, very concerned and some of them are very angry.”

There were no people from West at the hearing, but the group Texas Campaign for the Environment went door to door in West earlier this month and read some letters from residents to the panel.

Melanie Scruggs is with the group.

“Many residents actually had no idea how dangerous the chemicals were that were stored there or that there was any threat whatsoever. There was total confusion after that blast, and many people wrote that in their letters that they wanted to see safer regulations in place, which is surprising, you might think, from a small town in central Texas to say that they actually want to the EPA to pass and enforce tougher regulations for chemical safety.”

After some more hearings across the country, the federal workgroup will come up with a plan of action and present it to the White House. Barab says at the end of the day there’s no guarantee those recommendations will be put into effect, due to the differing opinions in Washington on issues like industry regulations.

But he says there is general agreement that something needs to be done to improve safety and prevent another West.

environmental advocates
Members of different advocacy group hold up signs highlighting different chemical disasters that have occurred in the United States.

Bio photo of Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Reporter/NewsLab Coordinator

Florian Martin is the KUHF NewsLab Coordinator. While guiding and overseeing interns, he works on his own stories and is always on call to cover breaking news and other media events...