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Recent Plant Explosions Renew Houston Zoning Debate


Many in Houston appear ready to take a new look at zoning or other land-use restrictions, following a series of plant explosions that have disrupted life and devastated parts of the nation’s fourth-largest city over the past year.

6 Major Plant Explosions in Houston Metro Since March 2019

“I feel like it needs to be separated, businesses from residential areas,” one resident told the Associated Press late last month, shortly after a massive explosion at Watson Grinding & Manufacturing rocked northeast Houston. “If they (have) businesses around here with chemicals, probably they have to be maintained more often, more inspections for them.”

The Watson Grinding explosion was the Houston Metro Region’s sixth major industrial disaster since March 2019.  The January 24th catastrophe tragically killed two plant employees, injured dozens of people living near the facility, and left hundreds wondering how they would afford to repair their blast-damaged homes and businesses.

Zehl & Associates is representing the family of two children, ages 3 and 7, who were seriously hurt when their ceilings collapsed on them while sleeping.

Zoning Laws a Tough Sell in Industry-Heavy Houston

According to the Associated Press, Houston is the largest city in the United States without zoning restrictions.

Supporters claim the absence of zoning laws is key to Houston’s economic success. Critics, however, contended that pollution, accidents, and other negative effects of unchecked industrial development disproportionately affect poor and minority neighborhoods.

While there have been six attempts to put zoning laws on Houston’s books since 1929, every single effort has ended in failure. But some believe the devastation wrought by the Watson Grinding explosion and other recent catastrophes could be a tipping point.

“We just can’t have these incidents occur without us looking for ways to mitigate future risk,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said recently.

Even Modest Regulations Face an Uphill Battle in Houston

Still, no one expects new zoning laws to gain a foothold in Houston any time soon – if ever.  For one thing, the presence of so many industrial facilities across the city would mute the impact of any future restrictions.

“Houston is built already,” Council Member Amy Peck, who represents the area around Watson Grinding, told The Houston Chronicle.  “In District A, there are so many industrial pockets. To remove all of those industrial areas would be very, very difficult at this point, so we have to find other ways of keeping people safe.”

That has Houston’s leaders considering far less-sweeping proposals, such as requiring petrochemical plants and similar businesses to submit to more frequent inspections and provide more information about the hazardous materials they house.

Unfortunately, even those modest measures are likely to face stiff opposition – and possibly court challenges – from Texas state officials notoriously hostile to any type of regulation.

“More often than not, the state is not there as our partner, but is there as our opponent and as an advocate for the industry,” Rock Owens, the Harris County Attorney’s special assistant for environmental matters, told the Chronicle. “So local governments have to be innovative and come up with creative solutions.”

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