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Huge Explosion Rips Through Texas Chemical Plant


It feels like a familiar story - explosions at a chemical plant in Texas. On Wednesday, two huge blast sent plumes of dark smoke above the city of Port Neches. Three workers were injured, and thousands of residents have been evacuated. The disaster comes days after the Trump administration reversed a series of chemical safety regulations. Matt Dempsey is a data editor on the Houston Chronicle's investigative team. He's reported on the regulatory failures of the chemical industry. And he joins us now. Matt, thanks for being with us.

MATT DEMPSEY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what exactly were these regulations that the Trump administration has now reversed?

DEMPSEY: Yeah. As my reporting partner Perla Trevizo and I wrote last week, the new rules would make it so that companies are no longer required to do third-party audits or root cause analysis after an incident. They will also not have to provide the public access to information about what type of chemicals are stored in these facilities, either.

MARTIN: So just to be clear, that's the situation now that the Trump administration has reversed Obama-era rules?


MARTIN: OK, got it.

DEMPSEY: After they were - yes, this is after the reversal.

MARTIN: OK. We should note the safety regulations - as I noted, they were introduced under President Obama in response to a 2013 explosion at a fertilizer company in Texas. Fifteen people died in that. I mean, what difference did those regulations make when you think about that disaster?

DEMPSEY: Right. I mean, to start, the Obama-era regulations never actually went into effect. They were designed to be implemented over a series of time. But they were rolled back before they could be fully implemented. And on top of that, those regulations were fairly industry-friendly. It mirrored industry group standards or required more reporting and analysis, required companies to consider safer technology. But it didn't require them to do those things, like, to change the tech they were using. There just wasn't a lot of teeth in the rolled-back regulations.

MARTIN: So in your reporting, you say the story of chemical incidents in the United States is a history of, quote, "near misses." Explain what that means.

DEMPSEY: Right. So in the last few decades, the U.S. just hasn't seen the worst of what a chemical incident could be. So even in incidents where people have died or properties have been destroyed, we've been fortunate that those cases weren't worse. And, like, for example, this week's explosion - if it had happened when school was in session last week or if it happened at 1 in the afternoon instead of 1 in the morning, we'd be at a completely different scenario when it comes to fatalities and injuries.

MARTIN: So what's the bottom line here, Matt? I mean, if the previous rules were too lax, didn't really make a difference and weren't even really implemented, and now the Trump administration has rolled those back, I mean, what's - how safe are chemical plants in Texas right now?

DEMPSEY: Right. I mean, the companies are very tightly regulated. But they're not really policed very much. So the EPA and OSHA don't come in very often. So we have to rely on companies doing the right thing 100 percent of the time. And like airline crashes, these are low - though these low frequency but high consequence events. But unlike airline crashes, this could kill thousands or hundreds if something goes really wrong. So it's really important for facilities to be operated properly and for government regulators to be on site and do something when something goes wrong or before something goes wrong.

MARTIN: It's really interesting, too, because you say the onus is really on these chemical plants to police themselves. And that was the situation with Boeing. After these two deadly crashes, it came to light that Boeing - too much of the responsibility for its own safety checks resided with the company itself.

DEMPSEY: Yeah. I mean, that's a really good example or analogy because one of the things people talk about a lot here, as well - first responders aren't getting all the information they need about hazards before they come in. Well, even if they had perfect information about what was at a facility, they have to lean on the individual facility to tell them what's actually happening. We still don't know the next day what's happened at the TPC explosion, for example.

MARTIN: All right. Matt Dempsey, reporter at the Houston Chronicle. Matt, we appreciate you sharing your reporting on this. Thank you so much. And Happy Thanksgiving to you.

DEMPSEY: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving to you all, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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