A Quiet Hell

Thanks to lax enforcement by TCEQ, plants along the Houston Ship Channel launch tons of toxic gases into our air, and face little penalty even when they exceed pollution limits over and over again.

It was one of the most disastrous workplace catastrophes in the country in more than a decade. Experts intimate with the details surrounding the explosion claim that TCEQ could have prevented it from ever happening.

"It's a classic example of incompetence and indifference and the agency's inability to do the job," says Jim Tarr, who helped set up the Texas environmental agency's Houston office in the 1970s and now runs a consulting company in California that was involved in one of the post-explosion lawsuits against BP.

According to court papers, state regulators never knew about or permitted the emissions source, a vent, that led to the explosion, meaning its use was illegal.

From the Houston Ship Channel, it is easy to see the otherwise hidden world of giant industrial complexes such as the Valero refinery.
Courtesy of GHASP
From the Houston Ship Channel, it is easy to see the otherwise hidden world of giant industrial complexes such as the Valero refinery.
Delia Del Valle, who has cancer that she believes was caused by air pollution, wants desperately to move out of her industrial neighborhood not far from Houston's downtown.
Chris Curry
Delia Del Valle, who has cancer that she believes was caused by air pollution, wants desperately to move out of her industrial neighborhood not far from Houston's downtown.

For 30 years, says Tarr, every time BP applied for a permit, the company never told TCEQ about the vent. And TCEQ never found it.

"Permit engineers at TCEQ never asked the right questions to figure out if it was present and operating and needed to be controlled," he says. "The primary responsibility was clearly BP's, but TCEQ had a contingent responsibility as clear as the nose on my face. And their failure to do that contributed to the death of those people."

Neil Carman worked as a Texas environmental enforcement inspector for 12 years before joining the Sierra Club in 1992. He says that if inspectors had found the vent they could have required a flare, which would have diverted the overflow through a pipe to be safely burned instead of shooting it directly into the air.

"It is another indication that the accident in Texas City was fully preventable," he says.

A TCEQ spokesman said that the agency cannot comment on the BP explosion because of pending litigation.

In another instance, says former TCEQ inspector Wayne Strickler, a colleague of his was allegedly kicked out of a plant for finding violations and later reprimanded for doing so by supervisors. Strickler wrote a letter dated January 2007 complaining about the alleged incident to the agency's commissioners.

Sometime at the end of 2005 or start of 2006, Strickler claims, an inspector went to Texas City to check out a chemical plant. While reviewing a database used to keep track of compliance, the inspector began noting violations. Suddenly, a company representative stopped the inspection, saying, "We gave $4 million to the Republican Party; what do you think you are doing finding violations at our plant?" The investigator was then escorted out.

The inspector later had a meeting with several superiors and someone from the chemical company, during which supervisors chastised the inspector and dismissed the violations that were found, says Strickler. The inspector was then transferred to another division.

The inspector "talked about it to everybody and anybody," says Strickler, "and was very upset. When I heard it, I was in total disbelief."

The Press contacted the inspector, who did not deny the allegations. The Press also submitted an open records request to TCEQ for materials related to the alleged incident, but the agency is contesting the request.

Former commissioner Larry Soward says he does not remember Strickler's letter, but that it hardly surprises him to hear that a company would kick out an inspector.

"It happens all the time," he says. "They don't want staff in there inspecting."

Carman says he knows plenty of war stories.

"I've had friends around the state," he says, "who have been removed from investigations because companies thought they were writing too many violations. When I was with the agency, there was no review, no investigation, no scrutiny at all. And the atmosphere hasn't changed that much."

Other inspectors say the same.

"The agency has always been very forgiving," said one investigator, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his career. TCEQ "is so backed up that it's had to cut corners in order to dispose of violations rather than ensure compliance and assess fines and penalties. The enforcement forms are very complex, very user-­unfriendly, and it takes more time to process a violation with fines than it does to just tell a plant, 'Fix this,' and then just go away."

Paul Judice retired in 2006 after 18 years with TCEQ. "I came to [TCEQ] from Exxon," he says, "so I knew how the system worked and how to fix a problem without going through all the agency's damn bureaucracy. It was obvious to me that [the agency] was created to be ineffective, so the best you could hope for was to be efficiently ineffective."

One of the biggest concerns Carman and others have about enforcement is that TCEQ relies heavily on company-reported information.

"It's just guesswork," says Carman. "Just fuzzy math estimates."

Most Houston area residents living near chemical plants are fairly well versed in common procedure. When there is a plant explosion as there was at the American Acryl plant in Seabrook last week, police and fire departments race to the scene while people in nearby schools and residents know to shelter in place. The citizenry has been well trained, as well, not to get too excited when flares light up the skies, knowing by that action that plants are burning off toxins before they can endanger anyone.

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