Houston neighbors head to statehouse seeking stronger safeguards from industrial facilities

Michael Spann, right, meets with area residents outside Our Savior's Church on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Houston. Spann has lived in District K for the past 30 years. He and a group of residents' are fighting back against a new CenterPoint propane storage facility due to concerns over gas leaks and explosions.
Michael Spann, right, meets with area residents outside Our Savior's Church on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Houston. Spann has lived in District K for the past 30 years. He and a group of residents' are fighting back against a new CenterPoint propane storage facility due to concerns over gas leaks and explosions. J. Patric Schneider/For the Chronicle

In the summer of 2021, when word spread through the Southwest Crossing community about CenterPoint Energy's plans to bring 300,000 gallons of highly flammable gas to the area, long-time residents of the peaceful neighborhood said they feared for their lives.

Despite protests from dozens of residents, state regulators granted approval to the peak-shaving facility in June 2022. The company has since filled its four massive underground steel tanks with liquid propane and begun operations there.

But the neighbors were not ready to give up, so they took their fight to the statehouse.

RATE HIKE: CenterPoint customers to see rate hike as utility recovers $200M spent on emergency generation

A group of Southwest Crossing residents rose before dawn Wednesday and set off on a 3-hour drive to Austin to testify before state legislators. Their goal was to enhance the community feedback process, ensuring future Texans have a voice in decisions regarding new industrial facilities next to their homes.

“When I first found out about the propane facility, it terrified me,” said Brittney Stredic, 28, a resident in the area who has been leading the advocacy efforts. “Testifying in Austin is huge for us. Just last year, we were sitting in (state) Sen. Borris Miles’s office talking about these proposals, telling him what our ideas were, and now it’s a reality. This is everything that we've been working for.”

By law, homeowners should have the opportunity to object to gas facilities proposed for their neighborhoods before the state grants approval. The neighbors at Southwest Crossing, however, said a flawed notification process and mail mixups during the COVID-19 pandemic denied them a fair chance to voice their concerns.

Some said they never received a letter. Others were notified when the deadline to respond had already passed. Councilmember Martha Castex-Tatum of District K — where the new gas tanks are located — had asked state regulators to extend the comment period given the delayed notifications, but her request was denied.

During the past year, residents worked with Miles to develop four legislative proposals addressing these challenges. While inspired by Southwest Crossing's experience, the senator said, these proposals highlighted the broader issue of striking a balance between residential property rights and industrial uses in urban areas, as neighborhoods statewide grapple with unwanted industrial facilities and limited avenues for recourse.

“Neighborhoods within this state co-exist with industrial facilities,” Miles said. “People in neighborhoods adjacent to new and expanding peak generation facilities deserve the information that would allow them to make the best choices for themselves and their families.”

OPINION: Texas once led U.S. in energy efficiency. It still can.

On Wednesday, the State Senate's Natural Resources & Economic Development Committee reviewed one of these proposals. If passed, the bill would require companies building large gas facilities to notify all adjacent property owners via certified mail and maintain proof of timely delivery. The vote remained pending.

The committee also was considering three other proposals, which aim to extend notifications to homeowners within a one-mile radius rather than 500 feet, lengthen the feedback period from 18 to 30 days and require companies to submit reports assessing potential damage in security incidents to local fire marshals.

Marilyn Rayon, a community member who also testified before the senate committee Wednesday, lives seven houses down from the gas tanks — just outside the 500-foot radius — and never received a letter. She said her neighbors, the Greens, had their objection dismissed as it arrived a few days late.

“Mr. Green is now receiving therapy for anxiety associated with 300,000 gallons behind his home, which he worked for all his life (as) a teacher,” Rayon said. “Mrs. Green is under stress because she feels like she's let down her community, her family and everybody.”

If these new policies had been in place, residents said, both Rayon and the Greens would have had the chance to communicate their objections to the Railroad Commission, the state agency responsible for granting such permits.

According to Castex-Tatum, the feedback could have made a difference. She cited a 2018 case in which residents in her district successfully contested a 27.2-acre brine pit permit near Buffalo Speedway approved by the Railroad Commission.

“I know the process can work if we had notice and we can go through the process,” Castex-Tatum previously said. “I don't know if the outcomes here would have been changed, but we'll never know because we didn't have an opportunity to go through the process.

“I’d also like to see city leadership included in the notifications as well as more time given to respond,” she said Wednesday. “Any improvements to the notification process will be a step in the right direction in assisting with protecting neighborhoods, especially in cities like Houston without zoning.”

CenterPoint Energy also expressed support for the bill the committee reviewed Wednesday, which focuses on certified mail delivery.

“As beneficial as these projects are to making sure that we can deliver natural gas safely and reliably,” said Jason Ryan, the company’s executive vice president. “We understand it's disruptive to the communities that bear the burden of this infrastructure and they need to get notice of it appropriately.”

More from Yilun Cheng: Scientists said 'Unprecedented' Gulf Coast sea level rise could increase Houston flood risk

While the bills mark a significant milestone for the group, Stredic said the journey was far from over while the facility remained in operation. And, leading advocacy efforts against CenterPoint for the past three years has been emotionally taxing for her, she said.

“I’ve never done anything like this,” Stredic said. “It’s my other full-time job. I'm running around the clock, 24/7. If I'm not doing email or calendar, making a document, doing research, setting up meetings or studying the plethora of things that I should be doing, then I might be dreaming about it when I sleep, thinking about it before I go to sleep.”

Still, she had no choice but to act, given the grave potential consequences, she said. According to a 2014 report by the National Fire Protection Association, there are about 300 fires and explosions per year at flammable liquid tank storage sites nationwide. Lightning, storms and human error are the three main causes of these accidents, according to the research.

“I committed to it because the first thought that I had in my mind when I found out what the facility was and what it was capable of was if something goes wrong, I might not be alive, I might not have a home to come to, my neighbors might not be here anymore,” she said, explaining there are at least seven schools, eight churches and two sports complexes within two miles of the gas tanks.

Studies show Black and brown neighborhoods in Houston and throughout the country often bear the brunt of unwanted industrial sites. To that end, Stredic has questioned the decision to put the propane facility in Southwest Crossing, a neighborhood predominantly made up of middle-class Black families. According to city data, by 2019, 95 percent of the 31,800 people living in the Ford Bend super-neighborhood were Black or Hispanic.

“Environmental racism is present not only in Houston but also in Texas and across the world,” Stredic said. “Companies put these facilities in areas where they don’t think you’ll fight back, and it’s hard to fight them because they have so much money. But we won’t give up.”