Photo: Gary Coronado, Houston Chronicle Staff
Chemical inventory is good first step, but safety alerts also are necessary
On May 5, I sat outside in the Medical Center enjoying the sunshine when I saw plumes of black smoke billowing toward the sky.
Over the next two days, on social media, I saw images of Spring Branch Creek running red from chemicals released during the Spring Branch fire I had witnessed.
This was not an isolated incident. Evacuations and calls to shelter in place occur regularly in our region, and with a recent spate of chemical accidents, I’m glad to see that the city of Houston is finally getting serious about the reality of chemical hazards in our communities.
Mayor Sylvester Turner and city officials are putting together an action plan by early November to examine the chemical inventories of over 6,000 area businesses. As chemical safety expert Sam Mannan said in the Houston Chronicle’s “Chemical Breakdown” series, “We are literally running from disaster to disaster without a well thought-out plan.”
This lack of a plan is a serious issue for residents of affected communities. The organization I work for, Public Citizen, is part of the Healthy Port Communities Coalition, which advocates policies to improve public health and safety while encouraging economic growth. We agree that comprehensive, up-to-date chemical inventories are essential to protecting the public. We’re encouraged that Turner has taken the first step.
Providing the public with necessary information must be balanced against the need to protect us from those who would do America harm. But our governor and attorney general have moved too far in the wrong direction by using security concerns to justify withholding basic information from the public. Their version of a right-to-know law is “go-and-ask.” That’s not good enough.
We deserve to know that we might be in harm’s way, and we shouldn’t have to beg for the information.
Turner should work with state agencies, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and industry to ensure that the public maintains its right to know what’s in the air we all breathe. We also recommend continued outreach to families on the importance of disaster preparedness, and for now, also encouraging them to sign up for alerts from local emergency management offices until opt-out systems are in place.
This interagency cooperation might be challenging at times because the exchange of information between levels of government quickly becomes complicated. In the minutes and hours after a chemical disaster, the agencies that are notified or tasked with notifying the public include: emergency responders, local emergency commissions, local offices of emergency management, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security. Although residents are in various ways alerted to the danger and the recommended action via sirens and loudspeaker announcements, reverse-911 calls, text messages, emails and emergency broadcasts on television and radio, those messages can be inconsistent, haphazard and ineffective.
There is a better way. Modern technology allows real-time, geo-targeted messages to be sent across media platforms, similar to Amber Alerts. Sophisticated wireless emergency alerts (WEAs) captured the nation’s attention in September when they were issued to notify New York City residents to be on the lookout for bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami.
If Houston were to use WEAs during chemical disasters, emergency responders could target people within the area most immediately affected in order to get people out of harm’s way and reduce their exposure to cancer-causing and otherwise dangerous chemicals. The WEAs also could provide a link to information detailing procedures for sheltering in place. Because WEAs operate on an opt-out basis rather than opt-in, their reach is broader than the current systems in place. You have a right to know if your health will be affected, and the Texas Legislature needs to develop policies that require the appropriate agencies to make wireless emergency alerts available. In a recent poll, 92 percent of people surveyed in Houston supported this idea.
In Spring Branch, access to an up-to-date chemical inventory would have helped the Fire Department effectively fight the fire. WEAs would have given neighbors crucial information about immediate risks and the safety of their air and water. We must also remember that while accidents like what happened in Spring Branch catch our attention, communities in Houston are exposed regularly to harmful pollution.
Turner did the right thing in turning his attention to chemical safety and security. Now he should ask state lawmakers to ensure that Houstonians have a reliable and consistent way like wireless emergency alerts to immediately know when their health, safety and lives are threatened. But his voice alone won’t get legislation passed. Call your legislators in support of opt-out alerts. We have a right to know when harmful emissions are in the air.
Thomas, Ph.D., is an organizer with Public Citizen and the Healthy Port Communities Coalition, which includes Air Alliance Houston, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services and the Coalition of Community Organizations.
This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.