|"Petrochemical alley" stretches west down the channel - downtown in the distance|
Houston – There was not a cognizant man or woman in the Bayou City who didn't get a little catch in their breath the day Islamic terrorist operatives of Al Qaeda bombed the U.S.S. Cole – October 12, 2000.
The small boat that approached the man-o-war as she lay dockside in Aden taking on fuel was loaded with an estimated 300-700 pounds of explosives that blew a 40 by 40-foot gash in her port side, killed 17 men and injured 39.
What if terrorists pulled the same stunt at a refinery or petrochemical plant?
The thought raced around the collective conscience of a 14-million member metro community, the fourth largest in the nation, at the speed of light.
That's because it's a well-known fact that when a ship or barge loaded with volatile chemicals explodes, it sets off a chain reaction that affects the tank farms and hydrocarbon crackers next door – in a chain reaction. It happened in 1947 at Texas City. A burning ship- load of ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded, and chain reacted at an oil refinery and at Union Carbide.
There is an area on the Houston Ship Channel that is known as “petrochemical alley” because it is the home of plant after plant that produces some of the most volatile stuff known, and the global war on terror presents a security nightmare come wide awake and standing on people's chests in the broad daylight.
Congress wasted no time passing the Maritime Safety Act of 2002, which provided for Port Security Grants to add video surveillance cameras, detection devices, and state of the art communications systems to summon police, fire boats and – most important – Coast Guard cutters. Less than a dozen ports were identified as high risk, and Houston is one of them.
When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 came along with its hundreds of billions in bailout money, Texas Petrochemicals LP received an award of $3.9 million to buy and install the best security devices at the company's ship and barge docks located on the channel at the plant located at 8600 Park Place Blvd., a hoot and a holler from Hobby International Airport, the Gulf Freeway that connects downtown to Galveston and other Bay Area communities, and millions upon millions of family dwellings.
Disaster planning experts have estimated that an uncontained chain reaction could ignite volatile targets all the way to downtown Houston.
Texas Petrochemicals is one of the world's only suppliers of butadiene, the hardening agent that is used in auto and truck tires, solvents for paints, fuel additives, and a list of a dozen more exotic products made from petroleum and natural gas distilled at high temperatures, titrated and gassified under pressure, stored in huge tanks, shipped in railroad tank cars and tanker trucks, barges and ships.
The terms of the grant call for the company to make a financial report each quarter, certifying what funds it has spent or desires to be paid, and that the money was used under the terms of the grant.
But it's been 3 cycles – 9 months - since a report has gone to Washington and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.
Government officials promised to get back with details on what, exactly, is askew, but were never heard from again over the course of two business days. After repeated attempts, one learns that the people who are to be contacted are young, well-mannered, patient junior executives who are well-paid to file and forget questions about public information.
The company referred this inquirer to Sarah Cronin, corporate director of communications, who let it be known in angry Monday morning tones that she was terribly busy, to make it snappy.
“We're not going to respond on behalf of the government,” she said.
Quitting time on Tuesday came and her e-mail was abrupt and bruising as the football weather that comes with the first norther of fall.
“...TPC Group does not disclose information regarding its security program and its ongoing efforts to uphold the highest standards of safety and security at our facility, to protect our employees and those living and working around the communities in which we operate. I'm sure you can appreciate the sensitivities around keeping this information confidential.”