Blowing Smoke

Item 54 on the City Council's agenda was enacted into law last week the way councilmembers routinely take care of most business before them -- with no public discussion and a unanimous vote.

"I think this particular ordinance will give the community the protection it seeks right away," proclaimed Councilman Michael Yarbrough. And that was that.

The ordinance to which Yarbrough referred would regulate the location of warehouses where hazardous chemicals are stored, and the community to which he alluded was Pleasantville, a middle-class, mostly African-American subdivision south of the Anheuser-Busch brewery near the East Freeway. In June 1995, Pleasantville was rocked by a series of fires at four nearby storage warehouses owned by Houston Distribution Inc. The stored chemicals burned out of control for a day, then reignited three times in the next month, each time sending clouds of toxic vapors wafting over Pleasantville.

That highly publicized episode led to a push by Pleasantville homeowners, joined by activists from other neighborhoods, to toughen the laws that govern such storage facilities.

The city played along, creating a task force of city officials to recommend an action plan, imposing a moratorium on new permits to store the most dangerous chemicals, creating a Council committee on environmental standards headed by Yarbrough (who hails from Pleasantville and represents the subdivision on Council) and appointing an advisory committee on hazardous-materials storage that included operators of warehouses and neighborhood activists.

Item 54 was supposed to be the first big step toward reform. But few of the community representatives on the advisory committee seem to agree with Yarbrough's glowing assessment of the new ordinance.

While the law does limit how close new facilities (as well as a fraction of the existing facilities, if they wish to expand) can be located to residential areas, most of the warehouses that currently store hazardous chemicals are "grandfathered" in and remain unaffected. A number of those facilities consist of little more than "four walls and a forklift," as one warehouse owner puts it.

"Grandfathering was our biggest concern," says Carol Alvarado, a Manchester community activist who serves on the hazardous materials advisory committee. "The isue was to address the existing facilities that caused the problem, or have the potential to cause the problem. The ordinance doesn't do that."

What further surprised and angered Alvarado and others is that Yarbrough, during a meeting of his Environmental Standards Committee the day before item 54 appeared on the Council's agenda, had promised that he would try to delay a vote until the grandfathering issue had been addressed.

The councilman's office had prepared a draft of proposed changes to the ordinance that would have satisfied community concerns by establishing certain minimum safety requirements for existing facilities. The draft was faxed to several of the community representatives, but no trace of the amended language appeared in the final version of the ordinance Council approved the following day. Yarbrough did not seek to delay the vote, nor did he notify the advisory Hazardous Materials Committee of the apparent change in plans.

"They told us they were going to do something they didn't do, and we never got an explanation," says Rick Abraham of the Texans United Education Fund, a nonprofit environmental organization.

Yarbrough claims that he wanted to include the amended language or delay the vote, but that neither was possible. "What [the City Attorney's Office] said was that we could not amend the ordinance as written with those particular amendments," he says. And a delay was not feasible because a temporary moratorium on new permits or expansions was set to expire on January 4, and passing the ordinance before that date was imperative. Otherwise, Yarbrough says, a flood of applicants might have been able to obtain permits with no restrictions whatsoever.

An additional extension wasn't an option, according to the councilman, because the moratorium already had been extended twice and Council was anxious to have it lifted. "I don't know whether we'd have had the votes," Yarbrough says.

Those arguments, however, ignore the fact that any new storage permits would be issued under the city's latest building and fire codes, which already contain requirements for ventilation, sprinkler installation and other safety measures that the neighborhoods wanted to see imposed on existing facilities.

Regardless, says Yarbrough, the community concerns will be addressed at a later date by his committee, probably through some amendment to the fire code. Whether that's even possible remains to be seen -- at an earlier meeting of the committee, various city officials discussed the difficulty of altering the code to retroactively affect existing facilities. Not only might such an effort be difficult from a legal standpoint, but it's likely to be vigorously opposed by warehouse owners.

Ultimately, the industry's clout may be the most significant factor in how the city responds. Houston has one of the largest concentrations of chemical storage facilities in the world, and the operators have not been shy about warning of job losses and financial disaster if new rules are too restrictive.

On the other hand, just about anything would be an improvement -- even an accurate inventory of storage sites. Right now, the city can't say for certain how many are out there. The fire department, which is responsible for inspections, has identified about 500, but estimates of the total by department officials and community activists range into the thousands.

Ironically, the city itself noted last December that simply imposing distance requirements on new facilities would be inadequate to address the issue. In its "Hazardous Material Mitigation Action Plan," the task force assembled after the Pleasantville fires identified five strategies "to lessen the risk involved with these facilities in Houston."

To date, none of those strategies have been fully implemented. Since toxic fumes from chemical fires don't heed distancing restrictions, the task force's report concluded, "The location of residential areas in Houston is such that any distancing requirement would not be effective enough to limit the risks associated with a neighborhood's proximity to commercial facilities with hazardous chemicals."

But Bridgette Murray, who as president of the Pleasantville Civic League has been active on the Hazardous Materials Committee, remains optimistic. "In my mind, we've made some headway," Murray says diplomatically. She plans to hold the city to its pledge of addressing the fire code or otherwise improving the safety at existing facilities.

"We're still in the battle," Murray says.


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