Terrence Henry reports on energy and the environment for StateImpact Texas. His radio, print and television work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, NPR, The Texas Tribune, The History Channel and other outlets.
He has previously worked at The Washington Post and The Atlantic. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from Brigham Young University.
Memorials near the site of the explosion in the town of West, Texas.
State Lawmaker Leading Review Says Nothing’s Changed
WEST, TX – Trucks and bulldozers are still working here, the site of an explosion a year ago today. A deadly blast tore through this small community, killing fifteen and injuring hundreds. Homes and schools were destroyed, with the damage estimated to be over a hundred million dollars. There’s a lone charred tree that still stands at the location of the blast, but other than that, the site is mostly empty. Crosses and memorials that read “West Strong” and “West is the Best” line the road.
The explosion at the West fertilizer plant was one of the worst industrial disasters in Texas history. So what’s Texas doing to prevent it from happening again?
“Well, technically, nothing has been done,” says state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. Pickett says since West happened near the end of the legislative session, he didn’t want to rush in any “knee-jerk” rules or regulations.
The state is making an effort to get more timely and accurate information from fertilizer facilities in Texas about how much ammonium nitrate they have. That chemical was the culprit in the blast (investigators are still trying to determine what caused the small fire that ignited the ammonium nitrate). Ammonium nitrate was also behind the Texas City disaster of 1947 that killed hundreds, and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 that killed 168.
“We’re slow learners, I guess,” says Tommy Muska, mayor of West. “History shows us ammonium nitrate is a dangerous product.” Continue Reading →
Crews are still working to clear the site of the explosion in West, Texas.
This week marks a year since a fertilizer plant exploded in the small Texas town of West, killing fifteen, injuring over a hundred, and destroying homes and local schools. Today, a meeting at the state legislature made it clear that lawmakers aren’t in any hurry to use regulation to guard against something like West from happening again.
The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee met for the first time since August to look into the industrial disaster. The State Fire Marshal told the committee that his office is still not sure what sparked the fire. It could have been electrical, or a malfunctioning golf cart battery, or it could have been started on purpose. But without question, the cause of the destructive blast was ammonium nitrate. The fertilizer had been legally stored in a wooden building with no sprinkler system.
What new rules and regulations should be considered to prevent another West? Two clear solutions emerged at the hearing: stricter standards for storing ammonium nitrate, and more training and coordination for local officials and first responders.
Within days of the spill, the spread of the bunker fuel was apparent. Oil was detected 12 miles offshore into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, March 23, and globs of tar and oil were seen along Texas City shores and beaches in the area.
Mose Buchele took the photos above of the spill’s impact on Matagorda Island. Check back tomorrow for his story on how the cleanup effort istelf could disturb the delicate ecosystem and endangered wildlife of the Gulf Coast.
Russell Gold, author of a new book on fracking, says that this drilling revolution is "transforming the United States."
If you ever talk about the surge in oil and gas drilling in Texas and the rest of the country by calling it a “boom,” you might upset someone in the oil and gas industry. That’s because if you call it a “boom,” that means at some point there’s going to be a “bust.”
“This revolution is transforming the United States,” Gold writes. “To a remarkable extent, this once-obscure oil-field technique defines the nation’s economic and environmental future.” A hundred new wells are drilled and fracked every day, he writes.
Gold sat down with David Brown of KUT’s Texas Standard to talk about why this boom is different, and some lessons for the oil and gas industry going forward. Take a listen:
‘The Boom’ hits bookshelves (both virtual and real) this week.
Now, with a minimum investment of $80,000, one Texas company is offering you your very own oil well. Oil Boom USA, a subsidiary of Texas oil and gas company Nakoma Petroleum, is inviting investors into the oil well game. Why? Because it’s an “unequaled tax shelter” and “exciting and fun,” according to the company’s website.
But opening up drilling to more than just oil and gas companies could signal trouble for the industry. As Michael Webber, Deputy Director at the University of Texas’s Energy Institute, explains to KUT’s Texas Standard host David Brown, oil well investing is “pretty good on the way up, but it could be pretty bad on the way down.” Continue Reading →
Cooling towers of a nuclear power plant in Grohnde, Germany. Texas Governor Rick Perry says he wants the state to come up with a solution for disposing of or storing spent nuclear fuel.
The storage and disposal of high-level radioactive waste is a tricky process, both from a safety and political point of view. As a result, that waste is now piling up around the country with nowhere to go. And Texas Governor Rick Perry is wondering if perhaps the Lone Star State could give it a home.
In a letter to the leaders of the state Senate and House, which you can read below, Perry says that Texas has “no choice but to begin looking for a safe and secure solution for HLW [high-level radioactive waste] in Texas.” Perry attached a 49-page report he commissioned from a state environmental agency that says that a facility for waste in Texas is “not only feasible but could be highly successful.”
The letter, first reported by Asher Price in the Austin American-Statesman today, lays out what have become familiar arguments from those hoping to make Texas a home for the nation’s unwanted isotopes: the federal government isn’t following through on its promise to take care of it, states paid the feds to fulfill that promise and got cheated, and Texas can do it safely (and, it would follow, profitably). Continue Reading →
Wind turbines in West Texas help produce record amounts of electricity for the state.
Another record was set for wind power generation this week, according to the group that manages much of the state’s power. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) says Wednesday evening, wind power generation on the grid reached10,296 megawatts (MW), or enough to power 5 million Texas homes during times of regular demand. That beat the previous record of actual generation by 600 megawatts, roughly the equivalent of a medium-sized fossil fuel power plant.
A few hours later, early Thursday morning, almost a third of the power on the grid also came from wind power, primarily from turbines in the Panhandle and along the Gulf Coast. It’s the third time this month that wind generation broke previous records.
ERCOT credits both a breezy week and the recent addition of a transmission line project known as the Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) that was designed to bring wind power from West Texas and the Panhandle to consumers in Central and North Texas. Continue Reading →
Landowner Julia Trigg Crawford on her family farm in Northeast Texas along the Oklahoma border.
A challenge to state law that allows private companies to take land for pipelines will not be heard by the Supreme Court of Texas. Julia Trigg Crawford, a Northeast Texas landowner has been fighting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline for several years. Crawford has lost several rounds and appeals in her case that argues her land had been illegally condemned through eminent domain by the pipeline company TransCanada.
As the case has made its way through the courts, TransCanada legally went ahead with construction and began operation of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline through Crawford’s land earlier this year.
“There is apparently a last ask we can make, to ask if the Supreme Court would reconsider their denial,” Crawford says. “But after that, there’s no other step in Texas court.”
Michael Fossum of the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation stands in front of the heritage Live Oak known as the "Taco Bell Tree." Fossum and his group fought to save the tree from being cut down for a traffic project. Now it's going to be moved across the street.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, it probably looked like something out of Dazed and Confused. Teenagers pulling up in T-Birds, wind in their hair, to hang out in the parking lot of a Taco Bell. The sun would set in the Hill Country to the west, sending a glow through the branches of an old Live Oak tree. Today the Taco Bell and the teenagers are long gone, but the tree remains, affectionately known as the “Taco Bell Tree.”
It’s also now at an intersection best known for being a traffic nightmare – the Y at Oak Hill – where two highways intersect and a third road feeds into the jumble. In order to improve that intersection, the state embarked on a temporary plan to expand it that would help for the next five years, while something longer term is put into place. The plan included cutting down the Taco Bell Tree, which has been here long before drive-thrus (or even combustion engines).All right, all right, all right.
Texas trees have to be hardy. There are Live Oaks along the Gulf Coast that survived Hurricane Katrina while buildings around them toppled; those trees probably survived other storms long before that. But as the Lone Star State grows, it needs more roads. More homes. More developments. The big trees are now coming into conflict with a state that can’t help keep getting bigger. And the trees can either be cut down, built around, or, as in the case of the Taco Bell Tree, they can be moved. At a hefty price. Continue Reading →
We’re coming up on four years since the worst accidental oil spill in history: the blowout at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Over two hundred million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf. Eleven men were killed in the blast, all from a tight-knit group of rig workers. A film premiering at the SXSW Film Festival this week focuses on the effects of the disaster on the survivors and their families, adding a human dimension missing from much of the coverage of the spill. It’s called ‘The Great Invisible.’
If want to to learn more about what exactly went wrong on the rig, and what could have been done to prevent it, this film will leave you wondering. It’s subjects talk about staff reductions and corners being cut on the rig, but specifics are sparse. It doesn’t really explain what went wrong that day, or even what a “blowout” is. Where ‘The Great Invisible’ shines is by casting light on the human victims of the industrial disaster.
Director Margaret Brown said at a Q&A after the film’s first screening in Austin that she ”wanted to use people, not graphs” to tell the story. “We lost the opportunity to talk about the lessons of the disaster because of political pressure.” (Brown’s representatives declined an interview request from StateImpact Texas to discuss the film.) Continue Reading →
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