Harris County faces long list of gaps identified after recent chemical fires

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo talks about the air quality in east Harris County during a press conference at Houston TranStar on March 21, 2019. A shelter-in-place had been called for Deer Park, where the ITC petrochemical fire burned for three days.Photo: Godofredo A. Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

More monitoring and manpower is needed for Harris County to better respond to chemical fires like the three that struck the region earlier this year, worrying residents and shutting the Houston Ship Channel, according to a study evaluating the county’s response to the fires.

The most critical response gap identified involved staffing in the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, where another 16 hazardous materials technicians —at a cost of $1.6 million annually — are needed to bring the team up to compliance with national standards. Other recommendations include real-time monitoring of air, soil and water conditions, along with the training and resources necessary to share that information among the various departments — and the public — during a potential catastrophe.

”This is an example of us recognizing the county is not where it needs to be,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday, noting the need for better information sharing with the public.

Three items on Tuesday’s Commissioners Court agenda refer to the report, though none involve committing funds. Hidalgo called them an early step to making some of the needed changes by directing homeland security and pollution control officials to develop a plan to implement some of the changes.

“They are tasked in 45 days to bring the shopping list,” Hidalgo said Monday.

In all, the report by PENTA Consortium, a private consultant hired by the county, lists 49 recommendations for the commissioners’ court to consider, broken down by issues that need immediate attention and those that should be reviewed longer term.

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Houston unveils first draft of city climate action plan

Mayor Sylvester Turner speaks to demonstrators during the Houston Climate March rally at Clinton Park on Saturday, April 29, 2017, in Houston. Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle

Amid concerns about the limited federal response to climate change, the city of Houston released a draft plan on the issue that calls for increasing the generation of renewable energy, greater investment in “green infrastructure” and expanding the use of alternative modes of transportation by making it easier for people to walk, ride their bikes and use public transit.

Climate change has made it imperative that cities such as Houston take action, but it will require a communitywide effort to make it happen, officials said Thursday.

“Ten years ago, a mayor in Houston probably wouldn’t be talking about climate change, maybe even five years ago, maybe even three years ago,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “But things have changed. It’s a new reality, and now we have an obligation to respond in a responsible fashion.”

City officials released the first draft of their communitywide climate action plan at City Hall on Thursday. They hope to release a final report by December; the public can comment through the end of August.

Weeks after the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the landmark Paris climate accord in 2017, Turner joined other mayors in committing to adopt the goals of the agreement, which include becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2050. Today, there are 427 such cities in 48 states. Experts say that it can be difficult to track progress, and that many other cities appear to be falling short of aggressive goals.

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How safe are Texas’ beaches? Report finds high levels of bacteria that can put swimmers at risk

Photo: James Nielsen, Houston Chronicle

During a hot summer day, a trip to the beach sounds great, but is it safe? A study found nearly 85 percent of Texas beaches tested had water pollution levels that could make swimmers sick.

The study, “Safe for Swimming?” looked at fecal bacterial levels at 167 beaches across the state; it found 141 exceeded a federal safety threshold for bacterial contamination for at least one day in 2018. The culprits are often stormwater runoff and sewage overflows, researchers said.

“Millions of Texans go to the beach each summer, but our coastal areas also experience some of the heaviest rains in the country. The frequent flooding causes runoff and sewage overflow, which can result in this contamination,” said Jen Schmerling, deputy director of Environment Texas Research and Policy Center, which authored the report.

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The epic effort to dispose of hazardous waste from ITC fire

Firefighters arrive at the site where the Intercontinental Terminals Company petrochemical fire reignited as crews tried to clean out the chemicals that remained in the tanks Friday, March 22, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas. Photo: Godofredo A. Vasquez, Staff photographer

For about three weeks, a barge loaded with hazardous wastewater from the Deer Park chemical fire sat in limbo in the Houston Ship Channel. No one was quite sure whether the shipyard where it had been sent could process it. Ultimately, it was returned to the storage terminal from which it originated.

Four months after the International Terminals Co. explosion, fire and chemical leak put the Houston region in the national spotlight, the work to dispose of the millions of gallons of waste and contaminated water generated in the incident is taking place quietly in the background and is far from finished.

ITC must comply with a 31-page management plan that details how the waste is sampled and identified, stored and finally disposed of. It dictates how it’s transported and where it can go. But details about the status of the work and where exactly the waste is going are hard to come by.

“Hazardous waste laws are so demanding. If you are trying to dispose of hazardous waste, you have to send it to a facility that has all sorts of protections to avoid contamination,” said Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland Law school. “That is why companies should be more careful of disposing their waste, and the real question is why they are not?”

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Feeling the heat: Climate change could mean more extreme heat days for Houston and Texas, report concludes

Alexa Hernandez, 3, runs through the water feature at Hidalgo Park in Houston on Monday, July 15, 2019. Temperatures were in the 90s. Photo: Juan Figueroa, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

If the number of extremely hot, humid days already seems like too many, a national study finds it’s likely to get worse.

The average number of days in Houston with a heat index above 105 degrees will jump from 10 to 74 by 2065 if there’s no action on climate change — making Space City among the hottest in Texas, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization.

The group released early Tuesday its report, “Killer Heat in the United States: The Future of Dangerously Hot Days.”

“Extreme heat is already extremely dangerous in the U.S. and it can even be deadly,” said Kristy Dahl, senior climate scientist with the group. “We also know that extreme heat is getting worse and it’s on track to get a whole lot worse in our lifetimes, so we wanted people to see this coming and to have a chance to take action to steer our future in a different direction.”

About 600 people already die of heat-related causes in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dahl said.

Nationwide, the average number of days per year with a heat index above 105 degrees would more than quadruple from an historical baseline of five up to 24 if no action is taken to reduce heat-trapping emissions by mid-century, which the report describes as 2036 to 2065.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.