Harris County DA’s office asks the county to triple number of prosecutors focused on polluters

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announces that a grand jury decided to indict Arkema and Michael Keough, vice president of logistics division of the company, for reckless assault during a press conference on Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Houston. Photo: Yi-Chin Lee, MBO / Associated Press

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is calling for a tripling of the number of prosecutors dedicated to environmental crimes in the wake of a series of chemical plant fires that has raised public health concerns.

In a letter Thursday to the county judge and commissioners court, Vivian King, the chief of staff of the district attorney’s office, requested $850,000 to fund eight new positions: four prosecutors two investigators and two paralegals. The county currently has two prosecutors and one administrative assistant devoted to environmental crimes. The request is scheduled to come before the commissioners court on Tuesday.

On March 17, an Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm in Deer Park caught fire and burned for several days, closing the Houston Ship Channel and drawing national attention. No injuries were reported. A couple of weeks later, one person was killed and two others were critically injured when the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby caught fire. A fire also broke out at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery in mid-March but was contained hours later. The investigations are ongoing.

“With Arkema and ITC and all of the alleged criminal acts intentionally polluting our waters supply with cancer agents, we don’t have the staff to investigate and work on these cases,” King said during an interview.

Continue reading at The Houston Chronicle.

Residents, officials press for answers on ITC plant fire in Deer Park

U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, addresses more than 100 attendees of a town hall meeting Wednesday at Milby High School in southeast Houston to update the community on the chemical holding plant fire in Deer Park in March 2019. Photo: Perla Trevizo

The main takeaway from a town hall about the Deer Park chemical plant fire that sent a toxic cloud over Houston for several days in March is that officials must learn from the incident to prevent it from happening again — and be better prepared if it does.

More than 100 residents gathered Wednesday night at Milby High School, about a dozen miles from the Intercontinental Terminals Co. plant, to demand answers about what the plant fire would mean for their health and communities.

“We are making sure that the agencies involved really do the work here on the ground to make sure we can hold those responsible, responsible,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who organized the gathering.

“It’s not just about the federal, state, county or city (governments needing) to do something,” she added. “It’s about all of us together, with input from you, making sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Continue reading at The Houston Chronicle.

Despite progress, Houston air quality among worst in the nation, study finds

The hazy skyline of downtown is shown from I-45 near 610 Sunday, July 15, 2018, in Houston. Houston made the top 10 list for most polluted cities in the country for ozone, according to the 2019 American Lung Association “State of the Air” report. Photo: Melissa Phillip, Staff / Houston Chronicle

Despite improvements, Houston made the top 10 list for most polluted cities in the country for ozone, according to the new “State of the Air” report.

Houston ranked 9 for ozone pollution based on a higher average of unhealthy air days from 2015 to 2017, up two places from last year’s report. For particle pollution, it ranked 17, down from 15. The American Lung Association’s 20th annual report based its rankings on unhealthy air days as recorded using the Air Quality Index. It looks at annual and short term spikes in particle pollution levels.

“I’m surprised and disturbed that Houston’s air quality worsened in this year’s report,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. “The trend since 1999 had been one of steady progress and instead now it seems we are backtracking and that’s bad news particularly for the hundreds of thousands of people who have asthma or other vulnerable populations like senior citizens.”

Continue reading at The Houston Chronicle.

Study: Sea level rise causes Texas coastal homeowners to lose millions in potential property value

A barge passes by homes on the Bolivar Peninsula Wednesday, September 7, 2016. A coastal barrier, an expanded version of the so-called “Ike Dike,” is being proposed to protect Galveston, Bolivar and the Galveston Bay area from storm surges. Photo: Michael Ciaglo, Staff / Houston Chronicle

Sea level rise has cost Texas homeowners $76.4 million in potential property value, with Galveston hit the hardest, a new study released Tuesday found.

First Street Foundation and Columbia University analysts examined about 3 million coastal properties in Texas. Using a combination of real estate transactions and tidal flooding exposure, they found that from 2005 to 2017, homes in Galveston lost $9.1 million in potential value, followed by Jamaica Beach (which lost $8.6. million) and the Bolivar Peninsula ($8.1 million). It’s not necessarily that these coastal homes decreased in value by these amounts, the authors say, but that they didn’t appreciate as much as similar homes not exposed to tidal flooding. Researchers factored in square footage, proximity to amenities and economic trends like the 2008 housing recession.

First Street Foundation analyzed 18 coastal states from Maine to Texas, calculating a total $15.9 billion loss due to tidal flooding driven by sea level rise. The New York-based nonprofit studies the impacts of sea level rise and flooding. The report was released as the nation on Monday observed Earth Day.

“Sea level rise is not creeping up at the same rate, it’s accelerating,” said Jeremy Porter, a Columbia University professor and First Street Foundation statistical consultant. “This is an early indicator of what’s to come and the loss is already in the billions of dollars.”

Continue reading at The Houston Chronicle.

Passports to the American dream: Mounting debt, few opportunities keep Guatemalans coming

Candelaria López, 15, washes dishes in her front yard in Bulej. The young girl stopped going to school in 2016 after finishing sixth grade. Her responsibilities intensified after her mother’s husband left for the U.S. this year. Simone Dalmasso /For the Arizona Daily Star

HUHUETENANGO, Guatemala — Amidst the chaos of third-graders getting ready for recess, a small empty desk stands out. The child who used to sit there is gone, having left for the United States with his father.

In another classroom, four girls work together to fix their costume for the school’s carnival. The rest of their ninth-grade class has dropped out — some to go to the U.S., others because their families couldn’t afford school any longer.

In a neighboring town, a teacher gardens to empower young women after the village’s only secondary program closed due to a lack of students.

Since October 2016, more than 720,000 unaccompanied minors and parents traveling with children have turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico line. An additional 110,000 have gone to ports of entry to seek refuge. About 40% are from Guatemala, the largest single group.

It’s not clear how many will end up seeking asylum, but in fiscal 2018 nearly 20% of migrants from all countries claimed to a border officer they feared returning to their home country.

For families in Bulej and Yalambojoch — indigenous towns near Guatemala’s border with Mexico — leaving for the United States is seen as a last choice, propelled by a cycle of debt that only fuels more migration. And while it’s too soon to predict the long-term impact of family migration, some of these villages are losing their future as the younger generation heads north.

Many of those who stay behind face a heavier workload — they need to care for younger siblings and tend house while their mothers work in the fields or fetch wood, tasks that typically belonged to their husbands.

Every week, residents estimate, at least 10 parents, each with a child or two, leave the small villages.

President Trump has called the current numbers a crisis and a national emergency. He has threatened to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border and shifted hundreds of customs officers from the legal ports of entry where migrants present themselves to helping Border Patrol agents process families crossing illegally.

But the numbers keep rising. In March alone, agents made a total of 92,600 apprehensions — the highest in a decade. Nearly 63,000 were family groups and unaccompanied minors.

In Yalambojoch, not even the death of 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo, who died in Border Patrol custody on Christmas Eve, deters others from following. His uncle and cousin left a week after Felipe’s funeral. It was his fate, the townspeople reason. It won’t happen to them.

In the end, the stories of those who make it and the need to leave are more powerful. As some in the villages say, children have become their passports to the American Dream.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.