Deadly KMCO Plant Explosion, Recent Petrochemical Fires Suggest Oversight is Lacking
The Houston Metro Region was hit with its third major petrochemical accident in less than three weeks on Tuesday, when an explosion triggered a massive fire at the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, Texas
Because the region houses the largest concentration of petrochemical processing and storage facilities in the world, occasional accidents and explosions are inevitable. But three incidents so close in proximity is especially disturbing, and points to a serious lack of regulatory oversight.
KMCO Plant Explosion Killed 1 Worker, Critically Injured 2 Others
The KMCO plant explosion killed a 27-year-old employee from Daiesetta, Texas and critically injured two others. The resulting fire released thousands of pounds of potentially toxic chemicals into the air, forcing nearby residents and schoolchildren to shelter-in-place for much of the day.
Just 17 days earlier, on March 16th, a furnace fire broke out on a gasoline processing unit at ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery. The now-notorious tank fire at the ITC Deer Park petrochemical plant erupted a day later and continued to burn on and off for a week.
Although no one died in the earlier incidents, hundreds of people suffered nose-bleeds, headaches and other symptoms likely related to the miles-long plume of soot and smoke that hovered over the Houston Metro Region for days because of the Deer Park fire.
Houston Metro Averages 1 Plant Explosion or Fire Every 6 Weeks
According to the Houston Chronicle, the Metro Region’s petrochemical industry is largely unsupervised and averages one chemical plant explosion or fire every six weeks.
Multiple federal agencies, including the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Safety Chemical Safety Board, oversee the nation’s 15,000 petrochemical plants. Yet there are fewer than 400 federal inspectors between those agencies, and they have a combined budget of less than $50 million a year.
It doesn’t help that chemical companies have had extraordinary success keeping new regulations at bay, thanks to a $191 million lobbying budget. In recent years, its deep pockets have allowed the industry to fend off new chemical disclosure requirements and many of the other rules proposed in the wake of the 2013 West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that destroyed hundreds of homes, killed 15 people, and injured more than 200 others.
Trump Has Undone Many of the Regulations Enacted to Prevent Catastrophic Plant Explosions
Because of President Trump’s ongong regulatory purge, oversight at thousands of petrochemical facilities in the Houston Metro Region and across the United States is now weaker than ever before, suggesting that disasters like the KMCO plant explosion in Crosby could become even more frequent in the future.
The EPA, for example, has experienced deep cuts since Trump took office in 2017. Meanwhile, the industry-friendly officials he’s installed at the agency have undone scores of regulations, and even attempted to delay enactment of the Chemical Disaster Rule developed in response to the West, Texas tragedy.
The Trump Administration has also tried to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board in all three of its annual budget proposal. Fortunately, because of the Board’s well-regarded reputation, even the President’s Republican allies in Congress have resisted those efforts.
OSHA inspections have also declined over the past two years. During that time, the agency has abandoned efforts to regulate combustible dust and significantly weakened workplace injury and illness reporting requirements.
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