Southern Brazoria County residents like to poke fun at the petrochemical plants that fill our horizon, with talk of magic fencing that could contain pollution being among the most popular.
That tired joke doesn’t meet the reality of how safely Dow Chemical, BASF and other local petrochemical plants operate, however. It has been more than a decade since any Brazosport-area plants have had an incident of the level that has become far too routine in neighboring Harris County.
The major fire Wednesday at the ExxonMobil plant in Baytown — which nearby residents say started with an explosion — injured 66 people, according to Houston TV reports. The cause isn’t known.
A contributing factor, however, could be the laissez-faire approach of state regulators with chemical plants.
Intrusive, overbearing regulations limiting business growth have been a political battle cry for decades, but continuing incidents in such a small geographic area as we have seen this year demonstrate the purpose of regulation. It is not to punish companies that operate within the rules and take a proactive approach to safety but to ensure those who do not can be caught before incidents like Wednesday’s fire occur.
ExxonMobil’s Baytown Plant has had 19 reportable incidents this year, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, including a fire March 16. A fire at a location operated by contracting company ITC in Deer Park that started the next day — and lasted eight days — overshadowed the March incident.
Just a couple weeks after those incidents, a burst pipe started another fire at the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, killing a worker and injuring two others.
A 2016 investigation by the Houston Chronicle, researched in coordination with Texas A&M University, determined a major chemical incident happened every six weeks in the greater Houston area. Considering the danger posted by some of the chemicals produced and stored at Harris County plants, that is an alarming incidence rate.
Brazoria County’s plants are not perfect, with flaring and unplanned chemical releases far from unusual. Comparatively, however, they are far better neighbors than the plants in Baytown, Deer Park and Crosby that make bad headlines on a routine basis.
How much more stringent regulation could improve the safety records of Harris County facilities is difficult to judge with certainty, but it is clear the number of incidents happening in that area of Texas is unacceptable. If one of the primary responsibilities of government is to protect its people, state regulators are falling short in that mission.
Poorly operated sites are the reason regulations are necessary, and political philosophy and a quest to boost profits should not prevent enforcement.
For as much as Brazoria County residents enjoy poking about how our plants are operated, we should be grateful ours are operated in a safe, efficient manner that prevents the frequent incidents like those in Harris County from happening.