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.
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.”
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?
A district court judge ruled Friday that a lawsuit brought by Harris County against Exxon Mobil can proceed, a win for county leaders who have stepped up environmental enforcement efforts.
“Overall, I think the court recognized that local governments have a role in these lawsuits and that needs to be maintained,” Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County Attorney for environmental matters, said after the ruling.
The office of Attorney General Ken Paxton could not be reached for comment, but Owens said the state’s attorneys will appeal.
The case was the first legal test for an April order by Commissioners Court that allows the county attorney’s office to file some environmental lawsuits without first having to get the approval of commissioners on a case-by-case basis.
Harris County filed a lawsuit against Exxon on Aug. 1, a day after a chemical fire at its Baytown facility injured 37.
The state’s attorney general filed its own lawsuit four days later, and in November took Harris County to court, arguing that its lawsuit should be dismissed because it needed to have explicit approval from county commissioners prior to being filed.
Roy Hernandez stood inside what was left of his home — shattered glass, roof insulation dropping from the ceiling, doors blasted off their hinges — and worried about what he’d wear to work Monday.
“All my uniforms are up there, underneath all this rubble,” he said in the middle of what used to be the living room.
Outside his broken window sit the remains of the Friday morning explosion at the Watson Grinding Manufacturing. The blast killed at least two workers, sent nearly 20 others to the hospital and damaged more than 200 homes in its vicinity, leaving a few dozen of them uninhabitable — including Hernandez’s.
Investigations are ongoing into what caused the fiery explosion at the plant, where authorities said propylene — a chemical used to produce films, fibers and plastic packaging – was leaking.
Residents in some of the most damaged homes returned Saturday to try to salvage as much of their belongings as they could and to board windows and place tarps on top of roofs. Everyone was working against the clock. The forecast called for a chance of rain by evening.
For Hernandez, the stillness on Saturday morning was eerie compared to the chaos on Friday.
“It feels weird,” said the 36-year-old, “it feels like the day after New Year’s Eve.”