Harris County plans to hire additional environmental personnel to better respond to dangerous chemical plant and refinery fires like ones that occurred this year near the Houston Ship Channel.
On Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court approved $11.6 million to expand and modernize the county’s ability to protect the environment and enable a proactive response to any potential threats to public health and safety. The package is the most significant expansion of the county’s ability to protect residents from environmental threats in at least 30 years, and will significantly expand monitoring, response, and enforcement capacity across three key county departments, according to Judge Lina Hidalgo.
The fiery chemical-related accidents since March included a July 31 blaze at an Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown that left more than three dozen people with minor injuries.
Over the next two years, the number of staff for Pollution Control Services, the Fire Marshal’s Office and Public Health Department will increase by 61 employees. This includes a doubling of the size of the Fire Marshal’s HazMat team and a 27% increase in their overall staff. It also includes a 50% increase in staff for Pollution Control Services. The funding also covers one-time capital purchases that include a state-of-the-art mobile air-monitoring lab, a network of fixed and mobile monitors, and vehicles and safety gear for HazMat responders.
“Our residents should never have to worry about the quality of the air they breathe or the environmental conditions in which they’re raising their families,” said Hidalgo. “Harris County is the nation’s epicenter for oil, gas and petrochemical production, with thousands of people living in very close proximity to industrial facilities. Today’s actions will finally enable us to shift from a reactive posture to a proactive one when it comes to protecting our communities. We simply can’t rely on industry or state and federal agencies to safeguard the quality of our environment.”
The allocations for three county agencies are as follows:
$5.9 million for staff and equipment at Pollution Control Services, including:
• $2.6 million for 29 new staff positions, including emergency response workers, chemists, and field investigators
• $3.3 million for a mobile air monitoring lab, new equipment for the onsite lab, fixed and mobile monitors, and monitors to build a steady-state network in the community that operates even when disasters are not occurring.
$4.6 million for staffing, geographic coverage, and equipment for the Fire Marshal’s Office, including:
• $2.7 million for 24 new staff positions, including 18 HazMat inspectors and technicians
• $1.6 million for two chemical firefighting foam trucks and a HazMat quick response vehicle
$1.1 million for Public Health positions, including:
• Environmental health and emergency response physicians
• Chemical response planner, health hygienist, environmental toxicologist
• Environmental epidemiologists
“Ramping up monitoring and enforcement allows us to hold ourselves and our industry neighbors accountable. These investments will help ensure we are good neighbors - ones that look out for each other and communicate openly,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.