Meet five star reporters on the ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigative team

We’re thrilled to introduce five outstanding journalists we’ve hired as our inaugural reporters for the ProPublica/The Texas Tribune joint reporting unit.

Kiah Collier, Vianna Davila, Lomi Kriel, Jeremy Schwartz and Perla Trevizo will join me in this investigative effort, with their journalism powering the platforms of both news organizations.

This is a dream team of reporters.

They are smart, authentic, fearless truth-tellers, with a deep love and understanding of Texas. I could not be prouder than to stand alongside Kiah, Vianna, Lomi, Jeremy and Perla on this journey.

It’s been a fun start since I joined the team. I got to read the applications of 139 qualified journalists who raised their hands to join our crew. That in itself has been encouraging. Working with ProPublica’s Charlie Ornstein and The Texas Tribune’s Ayan Mittra, we thoughtfully chose our five accomplished journalists — who view their work as a public trust.

So a word of warning: If you are doing bad things in Texas, well, you’ll be hearing from us.

Read more at The Texas Tribune.

Watson Grinding files for bankruptcy in wake of deadly Gessner explosion

The Watson Grinding and Manufacturing plant Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Houston. Photo: Steve Gonzales, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Mayor Sylvester Turner and victims’ attorneys reacted sharply Thursday to news that owners of a west Houston plant involved in a fatal January explosion had filed for bankruptcy and fired 80 employees.

But Watson Grinding & Manufacturing and Watson Valve Services officials said maintaining a viable business was the best path to long-term recovery for the densely packed neighborhood where a toxic blast killed two workers and damaged 450 structures.

“I am surprised and disappointed to learn that Watson Grinding & Manufacturing Co. filed for bankruptcy and fired 80 employees,” Turner said in a statement. Some lawyers for victims expressed outrage at the bankruptcy filing, calling it egregious, cowardly, distressing and irresponsible, but other victim’s attorneys were unrattled by the legal tactic.

A Dallas-based bankruptcy expert with no connection to the case said Watson’s decision to begin a voluntary Chapter 11 process appeared well-reasoned, foreseeable and probably unavoidable considering the size of the company and the level of coverage it likely had.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

High levels of cancer-causing benzene found near 6 Texas refineries, report shows

Parts of the Chevron Pasadena refinery can be seen behind Kruse Elementary School, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Pasadena. Air monitors have been placed around the refinery to detect cancer-causing benzene. The refinery is less than a mile from several schools, and a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project says that six of the 10 refineries releasing excessive amounts of benzene are in Texas. Photo: Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

In the fall of 2018, a leak at a Pasadena oil refinery led to the release of thousands of pounds of toxic pollutants, including some 8,000 pounds of cancer-causing benzene.

During that nearly 67-day stretch, the Pasadena Refining System reported its highest two-week average concentration of benzene from one of its fence-line monitors — a level that was 6.5 times above a federal guideline for short-term exposure.

The Pasadena refinery is one of 10 across the country that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for benzene as of Sept. 30, according to an analysis released Thursday by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. Six of them are in Texas, including three in the Houston area.

“Benzene is the most ubiquitous hazardous air pollutant Houston has to deal with, we are always watching it and very concerned about it,” said Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department. “It’s a carcinogen. It’s also a precursor to ozone formation and so understanding where we can go in and work on reducing benzene emissions is real vital information.”

Communities that face long-term exposure to benzene from the top 10 companies — whose annual averages ranged from 10 to 49 micrograms per cubic meter — could see as many as four additional cancers per 10,000 people, the group said, based on estimates from the EPA.

“The numbers are high enough to be worrisome,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the group, “and (state officials) ought to turn their attention now to what can be done to bring those emissions down.”

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

EPA still monitoring wells near dry cleaners that was named a Superfund site two decades ago

EPA contractors in the parking lot of Cypress Centre, 11600 Jones Road, conduct testing at the Jones Road Ground Water Plume Superfund Site Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, in Houston. The area was contaminated with tetrachloroethylene from the former Bell Dry Cleaners located at the shopping center. Photo: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

On a recent weekday, workers in the Cypress Centre in northwest Harris County prepared food, worked on cars and groomed dogs. Across the parking lot, two men in orange safety vests sat in plastic chairs beside a white pickup and took water samples.

The contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency were testing some of the wells surrounding the site of a former dry cleaning business that was found to have contaminated the groundwater underneath. They repeat the process every six months to monitor the progress of clean-up efforts at the polluted nondescript site in a corner of Jones Road strip mall.

To varying degrees, federal and state environmental agencies have been working to improve conditions at what is officially known as the Jones Road Ground Water Plume since it was first identified nearly 20 years ago.

The continuous monitoring will give federal environmental officials a better idea of what’s going on and help determine the next steps, said Raji Josiam, remedial project manager for EPA Region 6. “Our main thing is that we don’t want any exposures, we want to keep it safe.”

Based on the monitoring that the federal environmental agency has done, she said, “we don’t know of any exposure right now.”

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

Lack of restrictions make Houston residents, hazardous industries uneasy neighbors

Maria Diosdado waits as her husband, Eduardo Flores, moves the back door that was blown off its hinges at their home on Talina Way just one street east of Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, located at 4525 Gessner Rd., where an explosion occurred Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in Houston. Photo: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

The Diosdado sisters’ top priority when hunting for their first homes 15 years ago was to live close enough that their kids could grow up together.

Amelia and Maria found a quiet street in northwest Houston where many fellow immigrants from Mexico also had settled. Eventually, a third sister moved there, too.

None of them knew the business across the street, Watson Grinding & Manufacturing, contained a massive tank of highly flammable propylene that investigators now say may have been involved in the early-morning explosion that killed two people and rocked the Diosdados’ neighborhood, shattering windows, caving in roofs and rendering dozens of homes uninhabitable. Authorities say the catastrophic blast appeared have been triggered by a propylene leak and an electrical discharge.

“I wish I had known what was around me before buying the house,” Amelia Diosdado said.

Considering the blast rattled windows in homes halfway across town, the Diosdado sisters surely are not the only Houston residents wondering what sits inside the nearest warehouse. The question now confronting local officials and the citizens they serve is, What can be done about it?

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.