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Harris County outlines actions taken to enhance environmental protections since 2019 ITC chemical fire

“All families, regardless of zip code, should be able to raise their children without fear of explosions and the spillover effect of poor air quality."

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — On Thursday, Harris County officials outlined all the actions it has taken over the past two years to enhance environmental monitoring and enforcement.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said since the ITC chemical fire that happened in Deer Park in March 2019, county officials have been taken numerous steps to protect the county's environment against threats to public health and safety. 

Timeline: ITC chemical tank fire in Deer Park

These actions, according to county officials, follow decades of systemic underfunding and neglect of key county departments and services aimed at protecting residents against environmental hazards, including man-made and natural disasters.

“We are committed to addressing the root causes of repeated incidents that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations who live in the shadow of industry,” Judge Hidalgo said. “All families, regardless of zip code, should be able to raise their children without fear of explosions and the spillover effect of poor air quality. The steps we’ve taken are charting the course for long-overdue change, but it will take a sustained effort of working together, across disciplines and industries, to reverse the damage of decades of underinvestment.”

RELATED: ITC Deer Park fire: Fire out; TCEQ exploring legal actions against company 

RELATED: TCEQ brings in more resources after 'worsening and unstable conditions' at ITC

Hidalgo said since the ITC fire, the county has allocated more than $11 million towards improving its preparedness and response to chemical incidents. 

This includes adding emergency response workers, chemists and field investigators to the pollution control department. The county has also doubled the size of the county HazMat team. 

And to hold polluters accountable, the county increased its capacity to pursue legal actions. 

Also, following the findings of a gap analysis, Hidalgo directed agencies to improve monitoring and information sharing. 

A detailed breakdown of how the county's enhancement of environmental protections is below:

 Vigorous Environmental Monitoring:

  • $5.9 million allocated to increase staffing and purchase equipment, including a mobile air monitoring lab, new equipment for the onsite lab, fixed and mobile monitors, safety gear for hazmat responders, and monitors to build a steady-state network in the community that operates even when disasters are not occurring.
  • 29 new staff positions, including emergency response workers, chemists, and field investigators, in the Pollution Control Services (PCS) department
  • Adding Hazmat Unit to Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office to better serve the western portions of the county.
  • Addition of $4.6 million for staffing, geographic coverage, and equipment for the Fire Marshal’s office. Two dozen new staff positions include 18 HazMat inspectors and technicians.
  • Addition of two new chemical firefighting foam trucks and a HazMat quick response vehicle.
  • Launch of the Community Air Monitoring Program (CAMP), a real-time public air monitoring network that brings together data from a number of sources and monitor types to provide a more complete picture of air quality in Harris County.
  • Collaboration with the City of Houston and the Environmental Defense Fund to identify and mitigate air pollution more effectively through enhanced coordination and increased air quality monitoring, funded by the Houston Endowment. In total, once all grant-funded monitors are installed, PCS will have between 22-27 fixed, real-time air quality monitors placed throughout the County.
  • Increased number and frequency of concrete batch plant inspections. Since this expansion in early 2020, PCS has conducted a total of 134 inspections at concrete batch plants. In 2020, PCS received and responded to 20 percent more complaints than in 2019 (excluding ITC-specific complaints), and issued 23 percent more violation notices.
  • Harris County Commissioners Court has allocated over $1 million to support additional positions for the public health department, including environmental health and emergency response physicians, a chemical response planner, public health hygienist, an environmental toxicologist, and environmental epidemiologists. 

 Holding Polluters Accountable:

  • Addition of four environmental prosecutors to hold large industrial firms accountable in criminal court and two pollution control investigators to pursue potential issues.
  • Litigation against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to roll back stricter chemical plant rules.
  • Legal action by the Harris County County Attorney (CAO) against Watson Manufacturing and Grinding following an explosion that caused three fatalities in February 2020.
  • Three lawsuits brought by CAO against ExxonMobil for two explosions and several unauthorized releases of pollutants at its chemical plants in Harris County.
  • Pursuit of investigations into pollution in Kashmere Gardens resulting from a Union Pacific rail line.
  • Filing of two amicus briefs in support of upholding California auto tailpipe emissions standards.

 Transparency and Disclosure

  • Launched a revamped ReadyHarris.org, the County’s flagship tool to inform residents on what to do before, during, and after disasters. The new site now includes user-friendly information on how residents can prepare for events and real-time alerts and information - like a live air monitoring map when needed -  on what is happening to protect residents.
  • Addition of three staff members, including an Operations Section Chief, a second industry liaison, and a social media specialist, based on gap analysis recommendations. These positions will allow for better coordination with industry and County departments as well as better public communication during incidents in the future.
  • Addition of Senior Advisor for Public Safety and Emergency Management.
  • A currently in development facility risk analysis tool for facilities throughout Harris County.