In a recent investigative report, the Houston Chronicle took at a look
at the dangers businesses pose to our community when hazardous chemicals
aren’t tracked or inspected. In Part 6 of a series, the report looks
at how Houston could be so unprepared for chemical disasters—despite
having had a chance to learn its lesson 21 years ago.
The story begins with the Market Street fire in 1995. A warehouse at Houston
Distribution Inc. ignited, and when firefighters showed up to fight it,
they had no idea what chemicals were inside. There weren’t any records
available regarding what was in the facility, and even a representative
from Houston Distribution wasn’t sure what could be burning or what
might be in the fumes.
(Firefighter union officials are now concerned about the long-term cancer-causing
effects of this fire.)
All the representative knew was that a large amount of hydrogen peroxide
was being kept nearby, and the firefighters needed to protect it to prevent
a massive explosion.
Pleasantville, which was near the fire, was evacuated. Eventually fire
fighters onsite were evacuated, but only after they hacked through their
own firehoses that kept their trucks from moving—they had been filled
with water with no time to drain them.
Fire fighters who were there that day agree that dozens could have been
killed—both fire fighters and civilians in Pleasantville.
The (Empty) Promise of Reform
The Mayor’s office initiated a series of programs in order to ensure
that this would never happen again:
- $25,000 set aside for emergency planning
- Creation of the Committee on Environmental Standards
- Requirement for all warehouses to publicly disclose contents
- Twice-yearly inspections for thousands of warehouses
- Requiring hazmat-permit businesses to post warnings about materials
- Preventing hazmat facilities from being built within 1,000 feet of schools or homes
The central question was an obvious one: how could the 4th-largest city in the U.S. be so unprepared? The city wanted to assure the
public that something like this would never catch them off-guard. However,
two decades later,
none of these policies still exist.
There is no money set aside for the emergency planning committee.
There is no longer a Committee on Environmental Standards.
Less than 20% of hazmat-permitted businesses are ever inspected.
Recent investigation revealed that the city’s fire prevention department,
responsible for all hazmat inspections, can’t account for the annual
progress of its 125 inspectors.
No businesses have been recently fined for not posting hazardous material warnings.
As a result, the same conditions that led to the 1995 fire led to frustratingly
similar circumstances for the Spring Branch fire in May 2016. That fire
was large enough to show on weather radar, with nearby schools evacuating
while explosions boomed. Deep red fluid killed hundreds of animals in
a nearby creek, flaming liquid spilled out of a burning warehouse, and
a tar-like substance covered cars in a nearby residential neighborhood.
Just like 21 years prior, there was no record of what was in the warehouse.
400 firefighters appeared to fight a fire whose properties they would
never know. No recent inspection record existed for a business that had
been receiving hazmat permits for 7 years without accountability.
What’s worse—the exploding warehouse was located near a nursing
home, a school, an ammo shop, houses, and apartment buildings.
And the city didn’t know what was in the warehouse.
Comparisons with Other Cities
The terrible truth is this:
None of these problems are inevitable.
These are fixable issues, especially for a city with as many resources
as our own. There’s no problem here that hasn’t already been
solved by smaller cities with less resources. The Houston Chronicle report
frequently compared Charlotte, NC and their programs to the much-larger Houston.
For example, in 2015 Charlotte inspected 41,000 buildings with 36 inspectors.
They also have a mandate that every hazmat-permitted facility must be
inspected every 3 years minimum. When a warehouse fire occurs, Charlotte
fire fighters can access a digital database of past inspections and the
building’s contents in a tablet while en route to the fire.
Meanwhile, Houston fire fighters must dig through paper binders with incomplete
or inaccurate records.
What’s baffling is that Houston has had a digital database for hazmat
permits since 2011—but it’s only been filled in at a pace of
a day. As a result, the database holds information on less than 4% of the 72,000
structures in Houston.
Cultural Issues Within the Fire Department
Further, animosity between firefighting departments and fire prevention
teams has led to less cooperation between the two. Houston firefighters
will likely never receive the information gathered by inspectors during
a warehouse fire, despite that being the central reason for gathering
the information in the first place.
The report notes that when a fire fighter transferred to the prevention
department, his crewmates sneered and asked if he’d be putting on
“puppet shows” for schoolchildren. Such a culture could not
contrast more with Charlotte, who immediately send out an inspector to
inform fire fighters when a fire breaks out at a hazmat site.
In Charlotte, the central difference is what the leadership values: fire
prevention gets the full funding, support, and authority of the city and
the fire chief. We have 2 hazmat units and 1 station for our city, despite
a thriving industrial economy. Los Angeles is smaller than Houston, and
it has 4 hazmat stations throughout the city.
It may be that Houston will continue to suffer from chemical fires continuously
until our leadership learns to value inspections and fire prevention as
much as other cities. Until then, we hope both fire fighters and residents
stay safe and healthy, and that business owners hold themselves accountable
instead of waiting on government intervention.