A massive chemical fire south of Houston, Texas, triggered an emergency order for locals to shelter in place even after a dangerous chemical was detected in the air.
Local officials and public health experts say most of the risk from the Deer Park fire has passed and that further testing didn’t find elevated levels of the dangerous chemical after a release this morning.
But activists say the nearly week-long incident brought attention to the risk to communities located near facilities in the U.S. that use dangerous chemicals on a daily basis.
“We’re all being completely violated in a way that we’re really not talking about,” Yvette Arellano, an activist with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS, told ABC News earlier this week.
She said TEJAS has been pushing for a more comprehensive air monitoring system around the chemical facilities near Houston, harsher enforcement of violations, and more transparency about the impact of fires like this on the surrounding area.
The group says this week’s fire brought attention to incidents they see all the time.
The Houston Chronicle reported in 2016 sees an incident at a facility working with hazardous chemicals every six weeks on average.
“This is the reason why, whenever there’s a fire people finally get to see what the home of the largest petrochemical complex looks like only when this sort of thing happens and then they turn a blind eye,” said Anna Parras, another member of the group.
After Hurricane Harvey, storm-related damage triggered a separate toxic fire that prompted calls for companies to be more prepared for disasters and other unexpected scenarios that could cause problems for the public.
Local officials insisted the order to stay inside was a precaution and that further testing didn’t find elevated levels of the chemical. Benzene has been linked to leukemia and other health problems but the concern is typically for long term exposures.
Officials from the company, Intercontinental Terminals Company, said the chemicals were released when trying to cover a compromised tank of chemicals early Thursday morning but no additional emissions were detected.
But throughout the week exposure to the chemicals, smoke, and small particles from the fire led to concern about the health impacts to children, older populations, and people with chronic illnesses.
Susan Arnold, an occupational health professor at the University of Minnesota, agreed with local officials that the public health threat from the smoke earlier in the week and the benzene release was probably limited and not a greater concern if tests haven’t continued to show high levels.
“We want people to be informed but not inappropriately alarmed and what we know about benzene, the cancers we know about typically occur from exposure over a long period of time,” she told ABC.
Some activists are still skeptical about the comments from officials and say they still want more federal oversight of chemical facilities. Arellano said she’s still concerned and wants more information from state officials on whether residents should be concerned about exposure to chemicals or ash from their homes, pets, or even swimming pools.
“Our biggest concern that folks take protective measures post everything to make sure they’re not exposed to any residue,” she said.
Environmental groups conducted their own monitoring after Hurricane Harvey and found Benzene levels they said were cause for concern after the Arkema fire, even though it didn’t go over Texas’ recommended limit, according to reporting from ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.
Texas has a higher limit for when Benzene released into the air triggers public health warnings than other states like California, which has some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the country. Activists who have been involved in suing to force the Trump administration to implement new rules on chemical facilities say that’s one reason there should be more federal oversight.
“I know everybody says well this is a matter for states but if you think about the public health threats it’s silly to think residents in California need to have lower benzene than people in Texas,” said Daniel Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But a former EPA official who worked as deputy administrator for the agency in Texas said EPA only takes a big role in these situations when local officials ask them to, or if there’s an extenuating circumstance. Stan Meiburg, former deputy administrator for EPA Region 6, said Texas officials are very experienced in dealing with these kinds of incidents
But he said it’s crucial for officials to communicate clearly with communities who may not have a lot of trust in government officials, especially in Texas where the state agency has been accused of close ties to industry. He said its especially important in a situation like this for government to communicate with and help communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution or have fewer resources.
“One thing government can do is make sure communities in close proximity to these facilities are being protected in the same way people with more advantages are,” he told ABC.