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article imageHouston — A city where your closest neighbor may be toxic

By Karen Graham     Feb 15, 2020 in Environment
Houston - Houston’s lack of zoning restrictions has left many residents with neighbors they don’t want: petrochemical facilities and businesses that handle hazardous materials.
Houston, Texas is the nation's fourth-largest city and the largest city in America to not have zoning restrictions. We can also add that Houston is ranked as one of the 10 most polluted in the United States.
The lack of zoning restrictions took center stage in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. First responders not only worried about saving lives, but the damage being done by the wind and the devastating rains were also a problem. - However, there was one problem unique to Houston - The petrochemical industry, because after all, the city is one of the country's leading chemical capitals.
Yes, there were a couple of stories about the release of toxic chemicals - like the well-publicized Arkema chemical plant explosion northeast of Houston that blew several times and burned for days and a nearby dioxin-laden federal Superfund site whose protective cap was damaged by the raging San Jacinto River.
File photo: Screen shot from CNN News video above shows Arkema chemical plant on fire.
File photo: Screen shot from CNN News video above shows Arkema chemical plant on fire.
CNN News
The thing is - the Associated Press and the Houston Chronicle pieced together a myriad of county, state, and federal records that revealed a far more widespread toxic impact than what was reported to the public in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. In all, the two news organizations cataloged over 100 Harvey-related toxic releases — on land, in water and air. Yet, only two of them were reported publicly.
Three years later
Today, according to the Associated Press, there is a growing sentiment in Houston that residential neighborhoods should be separated from businesses, especially those that are in the petrochemical industry and those working with toxic or dangerous chemicals.
The city of Houston and its surrounding region has been through six major industrial accidents in the past year that have killed three people, injured dozens of others, and forced temporary evacuations and school closures, with the latest one being the massive explosion at the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing plant in late January this year.
The explosion killed two workers, damaged hundreds of nearby buildings and homes, and terrified their occupants. Other than the extent of the damage to homes, this explosion wasn't as bad as the Intercontinental Terminal Co. fire in March of last year. It was two weeks after the fire before residents near Watson were allowed to return to their homes.
There has been an ongoing debate over the issue of zoning, and it is highly unlikely that Houston will embrace zoning restrictions to any great extent. City leaders are instead looking at requiring more frequent inspections of the businesses, as if that will fix the problem.
“We just can’t have these incidents occur without us looking for ways to mitigate future risk,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said recently. But even attempting to do something about the issue will certainly face opposition from higher authorities. After all, Texas bills itself as being "open for Business."
Matthew Festa, a professor who teaches property law and land use at South Texas College of Law Houston, says that while the city has rejected zoning laws over the years, it does have some land-use rules and various other restrictions that could be termed "quasi-zoning."
While supporters of no zoning say this helps the city's economic development, others point out that poorer neighborhoods or areas that are home to more racial minorities are disproportionately negatively affected by the lack of zoning. And this was found to be true in the aftermath of Harvey in 2017. These groups of people often ended up at the bottom of the list when it came to federal aid from FEMA.
Roll-back of regulations
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instituted new rules for safety under President Barack Obama after the 2013 explosion in West Texas that killed and injured more than 200 people. However, under the administration of President Donald Trump, thse regulations and others were rolled back in 2019, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Part of the regulations that were rolled back included requiring companies to make information available to the public regarding the dangers of chemicals stored or used in the plants and mandated companies to submit to third-party audits after incidences. The Trump administration declared these rules “unnecessary regulations.”
All these issues have led to Houston being in a "chemical crisis." How much longer will the public ignore the dangers to their health and safety while living beside petrochemical plants that work with dangerous, toxic and even cancer-causing chemicals?
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