The Houston sky looked about like it always had when I returned from a two-week trip to France, but the feel and smell of it felt foreign. The air was heavy and sticky and reeked of oil and gas, which made me want to get right back on the plane and go far away again.
I was home, though, and the air was no different than it had been before I left. It just took an extended stay on another part of the planet – a far less polluted part – to make me realize how bad it was.
And that was in 1992.
Nearly 30 years later, the Space City has made some improvements in terms of its air quality. According to the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report, Houston had far more unhealthy air days in the late 1990s than it did in 2019.
But that’s not exactly a reason to brag. The city still ranks as one of the 10 most polluted in the United States, according the latest air quality report, and it’s still noticeable.
That’s largely because of all the industry in the Houston area, from oil refineries to chemical companies to manufacturing plants to sites that produce concrete. They have helped make the city as prosperous and diverse as it is, providing jobs, an influx of intelligent citizens and a boost to the local economy, but its effects also can make breathing problematic.
And let’s just say the ability to breathe is important.
The issue is exacerbated by Houston’s lack of zoning laws, because many industrial businesses are in close proximity to residential communities. That problem was no more evident than it was early last Friday morning, when an explosion at Watson Grinding & Manufacturing in Northwest Houston killed two employees and damaged or destroyed hundreds of other structures, including places where people live.
The blast was heard and felt several miles away, including in neighborhoods served by The Leader. My immediate concern when I heard about it, beyond thinking of the lives that might have been lost, was the effect it might have on the air we breathe.
There apparently were no significant problems in that regard, but that’s beside the point. Air quality in the aftermath of industrial malfunctions has become an ever-present concern for many Houstonians, because those glitches might be more common than flooding.
There were three petrochemical fires in the region in a span of 17 days last spring, including a fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park that burned for more than four days. It created a huge plume of black smoke that rolled its way across the city, including this part of town.
Events like that are frightening, especially for families with young children or senior citizens who are especially vulnerable. I recently joined that group, bringing a child into the world about a month ago, and the health ramifications of growing up in Houston is a concern that has crept into my mind.
These chemical fires and explosions tend to blow over in the minds of people who consider them common, which is pretty much where we’re at as a city. We might not worry too much because we can’t always feel their effects immediately, and we might be reluctant to place blame because we know these incidents are accidents.
That line of thinking reminds me of something my dad always told me growing up, which is what his dad told him and I’ll probably tell my son when he gets older. Whenever I knocked something over and said I didn’t mean to, the response I got was, “You didn’t mean not to.”
It may take that sort of attitude to curb the troubling trend of industrial malfunctions that have major impacts on communities. There needs to be more deliberate and effective action to prevent them, and there needs to be more accountability from government agencies charged with keeping citizens safe.
Mayor Sylvester Turner and Air Alliance Houston, a nonprofit that works to improve air quality and public health, were both critical of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality last week after Acres Homes residents won a hard, drawn-out fight against a business that planned to operate a concrete batch plant next door to homes and across the street from a city park. The TCEQ had taken steps toward granting an air quality permit to Soto Ready Mix, which pulled its application amidst pressure from Turner and elected officials at the state and federal levels.
Acres Homes residents spent the better part of two years voicing opposition to the proposed concrete-mixing facility, and as Turner and Air Alliance Houston pointed out, communities shouldn’t have to work so hard and shout so loud to be safe from pollution in their own neighborhoods. Protecting their rights and their safety should be a given.
Houston and its residents, businesses and elected officials should be more mindful of that moving forward, especially as the city continues to become more densely populated. Maybe it’s time to implement some zoning laws, or maybe there should be stricter guidelines and regulations for industrial businesses, especially when they’re near neighborhoods.
If we keep letting things catch fire and blow up, there might come a time when we all decide to move someplace like France. And as great of a place as it might be, I’m not sure any of us wants that.