Toxic chemical fires poison East Texas

By John Studer
June 12, 2023

Since the beginning of May there have been three fires at refineries and chemical plants near Houston, with one worker dead and over a dozen injured. Like the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, these dangers are a product of the drive for profit by the bosses and the help they get from the government.

For years a string of fires, explosions and toxic releases have affected the highly industrial area near suburban Houston residential neighborhoods where many workers live.

On May 5 a massive heavy oil fire and black plume of particulates broke out at the Pemex-Shell complex in Deer Park, sending nine workers to the hospital. It took three days for area firefighters to finally extinguish the flames.

Black plumes over a chemical fire, there as well as in East Palestine, mean that chemical particles settle down in nearby working-class neighborhoods. The Deer Park fire burned olefins, which include the carcinogen 1,3-butadiene.

A week later a Marathon Petroleum plant fire erupted in Texas City, 40 miles away. One worker was killed, the second worker to die there this year. Government and Marathon officials claimed the fires “were not cause for concern”!

A fire broke out May 17 at Valero West Refinery in Corpus Christi, shooting another chemical plume into the air.

“I have grown up here and watched neighborhoods near the refineries become too toxic to live in and people forced to leave their homes,” Kristina Land from Corpus Christi told the Washington Post. “Our local government doesn’t ever want us to know how bad things really are,” she said. “They just sweep everything under the rug and never talk about it again.”

The fire at Shell in Deer Park happened a day after a public Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hearing at the high school gym there. Dozens of angry residents came to demand state action regarding the massive 2019 leak and fire at an Intercontinental Terminals Company tank farm that blanketed the area with toxic chemicals.

ITC is seeking a renewal of its operating permit, the subject of the hearing, but organizers barred questions about the 2019 fire as “not within the scope” of the meeting.

That smoke plume hung over the area for three days. Residents were ordered to shelter in place, the Houston Ship Channel was shut down and millions of gallons of hazardous material, including the carcinogen benzene, spilled on the ground and leaked into area waterways. No government action was ever taken on this disaster.

While Texas has some regulations concerning underground storage facilities, aboveground tanks are exempt.

ITC is owned by the Mitsui Group. The only penalty the bosses ever paid was $900,000 in 2021 to settle a lawsuit from Harris County, which includes Houston and Deer Park. That figure was .01% of the $7.39 billion profit Mitsui made that year, the Texas Tribune pointed out.

These — and worse — disasters are inevitable as long as the capitalist rulers’ thirst for profits drives the economy. More ITCs, more East Palestines. Workers must use the unions to impose workers control over production and planning.