The Houston metropolitan area is home to one of the world's largest petrochemical complexes, but it's also — as outlined in a sweeping Houston Chronicle investigation — plagued by safety problems.
The latest installment of the "Chemical Breakdown" series, however, shows that in addition to the inherent dangers of storing large quantities of potentially volatile chemicals, city officials and emergency responders are often in the dark about the locations and quantities of those substances.
Officials attributed part of the problem to a lack of building inspections.
The review showed that less than a quarter of facilities with hazardous materials permits were inspected, and that even when inspectors show up, the investigations were sloppy or lacked follow-up instructions.
Meanwhile, a database system implemented more than two years ago isn't keeping up with the existing inventory of chemical facilities. Only a small number of officials know how to update the system, while firefighters — fearing a backlog — stopped making emergency planning visits to nearby buildings.
Elected officials also indicated that additional resources to conduct more inspections likely aren't forthcoming. The office of Mayor Sylvester Turner said that his administration is primarily focused on flood relief and pension changes.
Experts warned that the lack of proper oversight is endangering first responders — who often don’t know what chemical they’re dealing with during an accident — and the public at large.
"That's the thing that keeps me up at night," retired firefighter and fire inspector Chris Cato told the Chronicle.