Dave Fehling is the Houston-based broadcast reporter for StateImpact. Before joining StateImpact Texas, Dave reported and anchored at KHOU-TV in Houston. He also worked as a staff correspondent for CBS News from 1994-1998. He now lectures on journalism at the University of Houston.
Aerial photo of the West explosion site taken several days after blast.
In Texas, some of the most deadly explosions have been caused by a substance that otherwise plays a vital role in how we grow crops: ammonium nitrate fertilizer. It’s what blew-up in the small city of West two years ago, killing 14 people. But the use of the popular chemical has suddenly dropped significantly.
Maybe you garden and know all about fertilizer. But if not, you need to know that fertilizer can be from a multitude of mixes of different chemicals.
But the one fertilizer that has caused catastrophes in the past is a product made of just one chemical: ammonium nitrate. It provides plants with nitrogen so they can thrive. But when mixed with something like diesel fuel, it becomes deadly.
ERCOT is asking Texans to conserve power until noon Friday.
We first reported in June about some so-called “fake profits” in the Texas energy industry that led to a multi-million dollar windfall for some companies. We have been following up to see what can be done to reimburse consumers for what some experts call a serious mistake in pricing electricity.
In June, News 88.7 reported how a data error may have caused a very big mistake. It was in the computer system that’s used to set the minute by minute price for electricity sold on the wholesale market in Texas.
One investor and energy trader, Adam Sinn, told us the mistake resulted in what he called “fake profits.”
“We calculated this mistake was somewhere in the ballpark of $50-plus million,” Sinn said.
With temperatures near 100 degrees, this is the time of year when we spend the most money to run our air conditioners. But are you spending more than you have to because you used the state’s Power to Choose website to pick your electricity provider?
Frank St. Claire knows numbers and contracts. He graduated from MIT and became a lawyer and did big real estate deals. He’s now retired. Which is all good to know as you consider what now is challenging his analytical abilities. He’s been spending hours reviewing complicated contracts and pricing formulas.
“This is labor intensive. I had to do a spreadsheet in order to make any sense of it,” St. Claire told News 88.7.
What’s taking up so much of this retiree’s time? It’s his electricity bill.
There was a rail disaster northwest of Houston last week but you probably didn’t hear about it. That’s because it was staged as part of a training exercise at a Texas firefighting school where a new risk is changing the curriculum.
It’s scene that’s a nightmare for first responders. A train has left the tracks. Tanker cars have piled on top of one another. Two tankers are full of a flammable liquid. One’s on fire, the other’s leaking. A dozen firefighters are spraying the cars with water and foam.
“It’s hot. It’s hot. It’s very hot,” says firefighter Adrian Munoz, a volunteer for the Alvin Fire Department. “It was awesome. It was a great experience.”
If you lived in Houston in the 1980s, you might have noticed that something has changed about the air you breathe: back then, it was a lot dirtier. But whether it needs to be “cleaner” than it is today is at the heart of debate heating up as new federal regulations are being written.
In the past several decades, the air in Houston and other big cities has improved dramatically. One reason is that car engines emit far less pollution. And the same can be said for big industries.
Charlie Williams is a veteran of the drilling business and now heads an industry safety group.
A little before 10 o’clock on the night of April 20th, 2010 multiple explosions blew apart the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Eleven crew members died, 17 more were injured while nearly 100 others narrowly escaped. In the five years since, the drilling industry says it has dramatically changed how it does business to make it safer.
Charlie Williams, who spent 40 years at Shell where he was Chief Scientist of Well Engineering, is the man the industry has put in charge of what it calls the Center for Offshore Safety, created after the tragedy and based in Houston.
“I think we are better and we’re going to get continuously better. And the thing people have to realize is you never have zero risk. It can never be zero,” Williams told News 88.7.
Mountains of petroleum coke near the Beltway 8 bridge at the Houston Ship Channel.
State lawmakers are proposing legislation to deal with something we reported on this past December: giant piles of petroleum coke or “pet coke.” It’s a form of coal piling up along the Houston Ship Channel, and it’s leading to complaints from some nearby residents.
We recently reported how black mountains of petroleum coke could be seen along the Ship Channel; one pile looked to be more than half as high as the Beltway 8 bridge. The pile is just a mile from a neighborhood where we’d talked to Esmerelda Moreno who said with so many refineries and chemical plants nearby, they get used to mystery odors.
“Sometimes there’s like a smell, a weird smell,” Moreno said.
It was five years ago next month that a BP oil drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers. Millions of gallons of crude spilled into the water. Damage was done to aquatic life.
But is the spilled oil now to blame for the deaths of hundreds of dolphins?
“The magnitude and the duration of the deaths is utterly unprecedented in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Ryan Fikes, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. In a conference call, Fikes talked with reporters along with the group’s David Muth. They released a report titled “Five Years & Counting” about the effects of the spill on wildlife.
“There is compelling evidence that this mortality event that has been going on since the spill is linked to the spill,” said Muth, head of the group’s Gulf Restoration Program.
“Texas is being California-ized,” Abbott said at a keynote speech he delivered January 8th to the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
In a speech last month, Governor Greg Abbott said his state was becoming more like California because cities are banning things like fracking or the cutting down of trees. The Texas Legislature may soon debate passing laws to stop those local initiatives. But is that so new?