Steve McCan, a recently returned Vietnam War veteran, travels on the Southwest Freeway on a normal morning in Houston. As he notices a green Volvo carrying a young mother and a baby, a chemical truck passes over on Interstate 610. From his rear view mirror, McCan watches as this truck hits the bridge rail on the right shoulder of the overpass, causing its tractor and trailer to separate, and it begins to falls off the 610 Loop and onto Interstate 59.
The truck was carrying over 7,500 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, which released a toxic, white cloud that injured 178 people and killed 6. Luckily, with help from another driver, Steve McCan was able to avoid injury.
As per procedure, the National Transportation Safety Board looked into the incident and decided, along with Houston city officials, to keep that 610 Loop a designated roadway for trucks carrying hazardous material. The 610 Loop remains in its role today, even though the city of Houston has doubled in size and a truck explosion in that location would undoubtedly injure and kill a considerably larger amount of people than in the event described from 1976. Unfortunately, this dangerous scenario is not just played out in Houston, but all over Texas and the United States as a whole.
Trucks carrying hazardous materials and that pose a disastrous threat pass by heavily populated and high-importance areas every day in the Houston area, including soccer fields in Garden Oaks and the reservoir at Lake Houston. Texas actually remains the state with the highest number of fatalities related to moving hazardous chemicals. This statistic consists of 19 fatal accidents, which include a 2004 incident that killed 3 and injured 66, a 2014 incident where the truck driver was found dead from his own truck’s explosion, and an incident last year where a propane truck crashed into a second truck, forcing the evacuation of 120 people in the area—leaving 1 dead and 2 seriously injured.
The consensus seems to be that the best strategy for preventing these accidents from continuing to plague Texas and our nation on the whole is to move trucks carrying hazardous material away from areas where many people could be killed or injured by the blast. Although efforts to do this have been made, no significant improvement has manifested. Leading organizations seem to be passing responsibility, and meanwhile, thousands of lives are put in danger every day.
Too Slow to Be Enforced or Effective
Texas requires any city with a population of 850,000 or more to designate specific roads for the shipping of toxic chemicals. Even though Austin has exceeded that population for over 4 years, the roads have yet to be designated, as it is still backed up in the process. Between state and municipal organizations, decisions become hindered and execution dramatically slowed. Even within the city, it can be difficult for regulatory organizations to agree on responsibility.
Meanwhile, it is technically illegal for hazardous material to be driven across non-designated highways, but this is very rarely enforced. Texas A&M University in fact conducted a study that found an average of 468 dangerous truck loads being carried across Interstate 45 daily. Although this is 468 daily violations, the Department of Public Safety only issued 3 citations from 2013 to summer 2015. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration itself has only issued 10 tickets.
Houston is a large hub for the transportation of chemicals, but the dangers of these vehicles span the nation. We have seen deadly incidents in very recent years, such as New Jersey in 2012, Michigan in 2015, and earlier this year on the Oregon-Washington border involving formic acid, ignited fireworks, and burning crude oil respectively.
While we know that the shipping of these materials is necessary for the thriving of industry in our country, many interested in this concern—including the everyday commuter—would agree that these materials should be driven on designated pathways that avoid inflicting harm on large masses of people.