Photo: Roy Luck.

The analysis comes after the March fire at the Houston-area Intercontinental Terminals Company.

In the time since Harris County Commissioners Court approved a contract for an outside consultant to conduct a gap analysis about breakdowns during the response to the March fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Facility in Deer Park, more incidents at facilities handling hazardous chemicals have occurred. Discussing the findings of the report Tuesday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said it was clear that the county was underprepared to conduct the air monitoring it needed in the wake of the Deer Park facility fire.

Indeed, better coordinated air monitoring was one of the key recommendations in the report, which included a range of short- and long-term recommendations for several departments and agencies, including the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, the Harris County Public Health Department and the Harris County Pollution Control Services Department.

2,927 chemical facilities reporting under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act displayed in Harris County’s Atlas Mapping System. Source: Harris County Multi-Agency Coordinating Group Gap Analysis.

Air monitoring, information sharing between relevant agencies and departments and better public warning and notification systems were some of the other main areas identified for improvement in the report. Report recommendations targeted coordination between departments as well as data reporting and engagement from the private industry and communication with the public.

"There were insufficient resources to focus on the off-site safety issues to ensure the safety of the residents of Harris County," the report concluded.

The company itself conducted initial air quality reviews during the March incident, which lasted for several days. "This introduced a perceived conflict of interest between local government and the responsible party and their contractor," the report noted, a frequent issue in the wake of chemical fires in the area. 

The Harris County Pollution Control Services Department, while not an emergency response agency, is tasked with monitoring things like activities and facilities associated with air and water quality, among other things. But the report identified the department as experiencing the "greatest entropy in the last 21 years" and concluded it needed to update its six-year old emergency response plan.

During the fire, it was Harris County Public Health that was directed to manage air quality monitoring. "Because HCPH does not have the subject matter expertise to collect and analyze this type of data, additional resources, including the Houston Fire Department, the 6th Civil Support Team, Texas Interstate Fire Mutual Aid System resources, and a County-contracted industrial hygienist provided the additional air monitoring support needed to safeguard the residents of Harris County." Meanwhile, the report noted, "[r]esources provided by the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality were also limited, but at least accessible, if not always timely in nature."

Some of the conflict between the county's public health department and the pollution control services department, "no doubt" is "a result of the merger of these two departments from 1998-2011 and then a subsequent split in 2011."

Harris County Public Health, writes the report, "should support the Harris County Pollution Control Services in developing and implementing an effective Community Monitoring strategy to ensure the safety of County residents." Such an effort "will require substantial resources (personnel and equipment), as well as training to build this capacity in a timely and effective manner."

The county, the report concluded, "needs to develop and employ a chemical response plan," as well as hire staff with backgrounds in responding to hazardous materials and health assessments.

It also needs to better communicate information with the public, according to the analysis, including about what air monitoring is being done. The report noted, for example, that "each Harris County department currently has its own website," but that they operate independently. "The individual sites do not share or jointly use information." The report also recommended that departmental social media teams receive regular training and, during an event, should coordinate messages through the joint information center, among other steps.

Across several departments, the report recommended hiring additional personnel and conducting more training, including six additional certified response boat operators with the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office and expanding the fire prevention and emergency response staff of that office. Other recommendations included updating planning efforts for the Harris County Health Department, hiring staff with toxicology backgrounds to better respond to health concerns.

Some of the recommendations in the report were already being enacted. The report, for example, recommended that the County Judge's office appoint a Senior Advisor for Emergency Management, for which the county began interviewing candidates before the report's release.

Developing response plans is particularly challenging in Harris County because of the high volume of facilities handling hazardous chemicals and a lack of quality data on them. There's "the highway transportation routes, multiple rail lines, thousands of miles of pipelines, the Port of Houston, 2,927 chemical facilities reporting under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, not to mention scores of enormous warehouses, significant quantities of hazardous materials can be found throughout the County in each of the four Commissioner’s Precincts." But there's also a lack of reliable reporting. Though "all facilities that handle, store or use chemicals above Threshold Planning Quantities" are required to report on their activities "they are essentially on the 'honor system' as there is no easy way to ensure that all facilities are reporting," according to the analysis. The report suggests ways for the county to identify non-reporting facilities as well as inaccurate data. 

There was also a need for better engagement with the private industry.

"Improving the understanding and relationship with the private sector, particularly the oil and gas, chemical, and energy sectors that comprise the largest petrochemical complex in the Western Hemisphere, is also critical," the report concluded. "Detailing an effective process on how best to transition from an emergency response phase to a long-term recovery phase is another key to improvement."

The Commissioners Court voted to "spend the next 45 days brainstorming ways to improve the Pollution Control Services Department," according to KHOU. The county promised a range of improvements, including streamlined communications, adequate staffing levels, better code enforcement and more training and professional development.