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Fire Triangle

In the past two years, about half a dozen chemical disasters have ripped apart Texas neighborhoods, sent dozens of people to the hospital and killed unsuspecting bystanders as well as workers.

Texas Public Radio and Houston Public Media spent the better part of 2020 investigating these events. Our team has met with victims whose lives have been changed by chemical disasters. We’ve spoken with community advocates who are fighting back. We’ve examined the frayed patchwork of local, state and federal policies around chemical safety. And we’ve pulled back the curtains to reveal what’s going on behind the scenes with competing federal agencies in the aftermath of these disasters.

We want to answer the question: why do so many chemical disasters keep happening in Texas, and what—if anything—is being done to prevent more?

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  • When Hurricane Harvey unleashed record amounts of rainfall on the Houston area, it took out the power needed to keep chemicals cool at an industrial plant. A fire broke out that burned for days, causing 200 people to evacuate their homes and 21 first responders to seek medical attention. The flooding from Hurricane Harvey was unprecedented, but climate change is bringing bigger, wetter storms with more flooding. The nation’s largest petrochemical complex is vulnerable, and experts say we aren’t doing enough to protect it. In the final episode of Fire Triangle, we look at what Texas is — and isn’t — doing to prepare the Gulf Coast for a major hurricane.
  • Eight years ago, one of the worst chemical disasters in state history ripped apart a small town in Central Texas, just outside Waco. It killed 15 people. The fallout reached the highest levels of the United States government, affecting regulations for nearly every hazardous chemical facility in the country. But eight years later, many improvements have been stalled or rolled back. Ironically, some of those policy rollbacks were caused, in part, by a federal investigation into this very explosion. The story of this disaster is foundational to understanding the present-day chemical regulatory framework in the United States.
  • A massive chemical fire near the Houston Ship Channel led to shelter-in-place orders, closed schools and polluted the area's air and water. It took days to extinguish and impacted hundreds of thousands of people. Part two of Fire Triangle explores what the State of Texas is — and isn't — doing to prevent chemical disasters. When state regulatory agencies and companies don't do enough to prevent chemical disasters, community members are forced to take action. We meet two advocates impacted by the fire who are fighting back against pollution in their communities.
  • A toxic explosion rocked northwest Houston one year ago on January 24, 2020. The blast killed three, injured at least 18, and ripped apart hundreds of homes.
  • Part 1 of Fire Triangle drops on January 24, the one-year mark of a toxic explosion in a Houston neighborhood that killed three fathers, injured dozens and tore apart hundreds of homes as residents slept in their beds. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, NPR One, or wherever you listen to podcasts.