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Houston Plant Explosion Reminds City of Danger of Lack of Zoning

Last Friday, an explosion at the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing plant in Northwest Houston rocked residents out of their beds in the early morning hours. The blast was heard by residents as far as 20 miles away and claimed the lives of two people. 

Because Houston’s lack of zoning laws does not prevent residential developments near manufacturing and chemical plants, residents continue to live near facilities despite extremely high-profile incidents over the past few years.

There are currently no laws in Houston dictating how close a plant can be built to residential and commercial areas. The city’s hands-off approach to zoning has resulted in far more plants being within close proximity to neighborhoods and schools, even compared to other Texas cities. 

Scientists who study the effects of zoning use Houston as a control group. In Houston, 65 percent of the city is within one mile of a facility in the toxic release inventory compared to Austin, where less than half of the city is that close.

The problem is exacerbated by the rollback of safety regulations by the Trump Administration. 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. Those protections 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. Trump’s EPA referred to these as “unnecessary regulations.”

Houston is in somewhat of a chemical pollution crisis now, with concern over lack of public disclosure about the dangers of substances used in plants. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has been accused of downplaying the cancer-causing effects of ethylene oxide used in manufacturing across the Greater Houston Area, and the Fifth Ward neighborhood has seen a horrific spike in cancer cases that are being tracked to the use of creosote in the nearby Englewood Rail Yard.

Luckily, the explosion at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing appears to have been far less catastrophic. Unlike the Intercontinental Terminal Co. fire in March of last year where people in the area were not allowed back into their homes two weeks after the fire, the residents near Watson are cleared to return.

“Some people had some roof damage, but there was no evacuation order from the city,” says Corey Sottlemeyer, public relations manager for the Department of Emergency Management (DEM). “Emergency housing was completely optional. People are back in their homes now.”

Still, damage was still quite significant to structures located near the plant. According to the most recent numbers from the DEM, 450 structures received damaged, 35 of them classified as major. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been on-hand to help those who needed temporary shelter.

The cause of the blast is still being investigated by a joint effort from the Houston Police Department, Houston Fire Department, and the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, in coordination with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Houston Division; Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ); and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). HPD said that there have been no reports or arrests for looting in the area following the explosion but encouraged Houstonians to be on the lookout for fraudulent charity organizations who claim to be collecting money for people affected. Check the credentials of persons soliciting. 

The Red Cross has been on site and can be reached by phone at 1-800-985-5990 or by texting “TalkWithUs” to 66746. The State of Texas also maintains a guide on explosion safety suggestions.  

Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner is an award-winning freelance journalist, the author of The Rook Circle, and a member of The Black Math Experiment. He lives in Houston where he spends most of his time investigating corruption and strange happenings. Jef has written for Houston Press, Free Press Houston, and Houston Chronicle.
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