On Wednesday, a massive explosion and fire rocked ExxonMobil’s Baytown plant near Houston, one of the largest oil refineries in the country. The blast sent a gigantic plume of black smoke towering above the plant. Thirty-seven were injured and panic spread throughout the community. Quickly, iPhones began buzzing with a notification warning nearby residents to “shelter in place” or risk exposure to the toxic brew of chemicals in the air.
“You feel defenseless,” says lifelong Baytown resident Agustin Loredo, a father of four. “It’s a difficult conversation to tell my kids and tell my family to lock yourself in, turn off the A/C even though it’s hot in Texas, don’t open the windows—just sit there.”
Such conversations are routine in Baytown, a city of 85,000 close by Houston’s Ship Channel. In addition to an explosion at Exxon’s plant back in March, two other fires have taken place at chemical plants near the Ship Channel this year. According to a 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation, a major chemical exposure occurs in the Houston area every six weeks.
“My whole life, I’ve grown up with the windows rattling in the middle of the night with explosions,” says Loredo. “There is always anxiety.”
Under the Trump administration, explosions like the one Wednesday in Houston could become more routine, as a result of its zeal for deregulation. The chronic fear, environmental damage, and even death don’t typically get factored into the cost-benefit analysis by die-hard ideologues seeking to toss out reasonable safeguards. But in Baytown, deregulation creates real-world anxieties for residents like Loredo.
“It’s just scary. Sometimes there are flares and sirens going off in the middle of the night and you don’t know why,” he says.
Environmental and community activists warn that the Trump administration’s move to repeal the so-called Chemical Disaster Rule has put residents in the vicinity of refineries and other potentially hazardous sites at risk. Many activists fear that the new Trump rule will significantly restrict the amount of information that local activists can access about the risks posed by chemical plants under public “right to know” laws.
Public information about what risks are inherent in chemical facilities can be used by local activists to pressure local and state governments to force chemical companies to clean up their act. Knowledge about what chemicals are being used in a plant also allows communities to develop effective emergency management response plans.
While the impetus for the Chemical Disaster Rule was the deadly 2013 West, Texas, chemical and fertilizer explosion, in which 15 people perished, the Obama Administration faced much criticism from environmental groups for spending three and half years negotiating with industry over the final language. The negotiations proved costly, as the final rule wasn’t finalized until January 2017.
The rule updates the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Risk Management Program, requiring preventive training and auditing at chemical facilities, information-sharing with local community responders, and more accessibility for critical information. For example, communities would be able to request information directly from the chemical companies, instead of filling out a local public-records request.
The Trump administration almost immediately stopped implementation of the rule, arguing that it was not properly completed. In August of 2018, a federal court, in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, ordered the Trump administration to enforce the rule, declaring that it was properly constructed. But by that time, the EPA had already begun the process of permanently repealing critical portions of it. And enforcement of a rule that the EPA clearly wants to abandon has been spotty.
From the effective date of the rule in March 2017 to September 2018, 73 different incidents have occurred at facilities that would have been covered by the risk management program.
The EPA’s own National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) has opposed the rollback. “EPA found that this rule would protect the most vulnerable communities, workers, and first-responders from disastrous chemical releases, fires, and explosions,” wrote the NEJAC in a May 3 letter to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler. “We ask you to fulfill EPA’s responsibility to safeguard public health and ensure that chemical facilities take the common-sense steps required by the Chemical Disaster Rule to prevent more deaths, injuries, evacuations, and shelter-in-place orders, before additional, preventable disasters occur on your watch.”
Limiting the public’s right to know would be a significant victory for chemical producers hoping to keep secret from communities what they are producing nearby.
“Nobody wants to tell you the truth because you may scare the daylights out of the community,” says Juan Parras, executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS).
In a time when the Trump administration is reducing environmental enforcement across the board, local and state regulators are stepping up to take action against polluters. Often, information gathered through public “right to know” laws is used to pressure facilities like ExxonMobil’s in Baytown when they apply for zoning permits to expand.
Recently, ExxonMobil applied for permits to undertake a $2 billion expansion of its plants in Baytown. As part of the expansion process, which ExxonMobil claims will create 1,500 new jobs, local community activists have been asking ExxonMobil tough questions about its chemical practices, but haven’t been satisfied with the answers.
“Their answers are always very ‘cupcake,’ they don’t have specific answers to the questions we have,” says Loredo, who is a member of the local Goose Creek school board in Baytown.
Local prosecutors also use public “right to know” information in lawsuits against polluters. On Thursday, the Harris County District Attorney announced that they were suing ExxonMobil under Texas’s Clean Air Act for unauthorized release of chemicals that “resulted in the emission of multiple air pollutants, including propylene, LPG, propane, and associated products of combustion.”
The suit is the second that Harris County has brought against ExxonMobil this year for fires, explosions, and chemical releases in Baytown.
With the administration making it difficult for activists to access information about chemicals in plants, activists say they are losing one of the best tools they have to force change, while being kept in the dark about risks in their communities.
“They are basically leaving these people at the mercy of an act of God, and it’s sad,” says Eric Whalen, spokesperson for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform. “This is a federal administration that isn’t interested in their health and safety, at least not to the degree that they are interested in protecting oil companies and their right to keep secrets.”
Nationwide, 124 million Americans, or 39 percent of the population, live within three miles of a chemical plant where an explosion would put their health at risk, according to a 2018 report released by the Environmental Justice Health Alliance.
According to the report, a disproportionate number of the nation’s 12,500 high-risk chemical facilities are located in communities of color. One study from the advocacy group Earthjustice notes that people of color are 60 percent to 75 percent more likely to have a hazardous chemical facility in their community. For Baytown, the rule’s rollback is yet another example of the environmental racism of the Trump administration.
“The Trump administration is deregulating a lot of chemical policies and regulations that have been in place and have been good for communities,” says Parras. “With all of this deregulation, he is actually placing communities like the Houston Ship Channel in harm’s way.”
However, activists in Baytown say they have no plans to leave their community. They plan to continue to fight back against the Trump administration.
“I realize that our town was built because of Exxon, but I also expect them to follow regulations, I also expect them to be cognizant of the community they serve,” says Loredo. “There are days that I am scared for my life and explosions like this remind us that something needs to change.”