New Texas Law Regulates Aboveground Chemical Storage Tanks

The Texas Legislature in June passed legislation to create new safety rules for aboveground storage tanks after a series of high-profile chemical fires in recent years. Governor Greg Abbott signed the legislation into law on June 8, 2021.

Under the law, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will create new performance standards for large aboveground storage tanks (called “vessels” in the bill) that are located at or are part of a petrochemical plant, petroleum refinery or a bulk storage terminal. The regulator must establish the new rules for aboveground tanks by September 2023.

The new standard will cover requirements for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of these tanks in order to protect groundwater and surface water in case of an incident or natural disaster.

Having  robust safety standards could have prevented the catastrophic fire that occurred at the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) in March 2019, said Texas Senator Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, who wrote the tank bill (Senate Bill 900) and negotiated with industry groups to assure the bill’s passage in the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature.

Investigation of the tank fire revealed  that the failure of equipment and a leak at ITC’s chemical tank farm caused the fire to erupt, which spread to almost 12 other tanks. Area residents sheltered in place because of the hazardous air emissions, the Houston Ship Channel shut down for three days, millions of gallons of hazardous waste spilled on the ground and leaked into the water, and smoke hung over the Houston skyline.

Texas had numerous rules for below-ground chemical storage tanks, including construction standards and plans to prevent spills, but until SB 900 became law, aboveground storage tanks were exempt.

Numerous chemical fires in Texas in 2019 and the resulting outcry from residents and regulators motivated more Republican state lawmakers to take action on regulating the aboveground tanks.

This was true for the Republican Texas House speaker, Dade Phelan, whose constituents had to evacuate the day before Thanksgiving in 2019 when several explosions blasted the TPC Group chemical facility in Port Neches, Texas. The blast damaged residents’ property, and toxic emissions spewed forth from the resulting plant fire for over a week. The TPC Group ended up essentially shuttering the facility, costing USW workers their jobs.

Alvarado said that explosion and the other incidents forced industry groups to negotiate a new law regulating the aboveground tanks.

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