Greenpeace members face felony charges in Houston bridge protest

FILE PHOTO: Greenpeace USA climbers form a blockade on the Fred Hartman Bridge, shutting down the Houston Ship Channel, the largest fossil fuel thoroughfare in the United States, ahead of the third Democratic primary debate in nearby Houston, near Baytown, Texas, U.S. September 12, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Texas authorities on Friday charged climate change protesters who shut down the largest U.S. energy-export port for a day by dangling on ropes from a bridge in Houston.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office charged 31 people, including Greenpeace protesters and others who supported them, under a state law that makes it a felony to disrupt energy pipelines and ports. The group shut a portion of the Houston Ship Channel all of Thursday.

Those charged include six people not in custody, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office said. All face up to two years in prison if convicted under the Texas “critical infrastructure” law that took effect last month.

All 31 also face charges for trespassing and obstructing a roadway, the spokesman said.

“This is a bullying tactic that serves the interests of corporations at the expense of people exercising their right to free speech,” said Tom Wetterer, Greenpeace’s general counsel.

Texas this year was one of seven states nationwide that passed laws seeking to curb protests that broke out across the nation over energy projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and Bayou Bridge pipeline.

“Critical infrastructure laws like Texas’ were created by oil and gas lobbyists and secretive groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council to restrict First Amendment rights and to try to bring to bear extraordinary consequences for legitimate protests,” said Wetterer.

Greenpeace could face a $500,000 fine under the Texas law for supporting the protests, said Jennifer Hensley, director of state lobbying and advocacy for environmental group Sierra Club, which is fighting some of the laws.

The Houston Ship Channel on Friday reopened for vessel traffic, the U.S. Coast Guard said, after the last of 11 protesters who had disrupted traffic by hanging from ropes above the key energy-export waterway was removed by police earlier in the morning.

A large portion of the channel was closed when protesters attached themselves and banners to the bridge over the waterway to bring attention to climate change during Thursday’s debate of Democratic presidential hopefuls in Houston.

Police early on Friday arrested 23 Greenpeace members involved in the protest, with the last removed at about 1 a.m. by Harris County Sheriff’s officers, said Travis Nichols, a Greenpeace spokesman. The 23 were taken to the Harris County jail in Houston.

The protests had halted movement on a large portion of the Houston Ship Channel, which stretches 53 miles (85 km) from its entrance in the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Houston. The area affected is home to five major oil refineries as well as chemical and oil-export terminals.

Day-long shutdowns caused by fog are typically cleared within a day, a Coast Guard official said on Thursday.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston; Writing by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Sandra Maler)

Heavy rain and widespread power outages hit southeast Texas, Louisiana

Rainfall and flooding for 5-10-19 - 5-11-19 National Weather Service

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Hailstones the size of golf balls accompanied by as much as four inches of rain pelted the U.S. Gulf coast from Texas to Louisiana, flooding highways, downing power lines and closing some schools, officials said.

About 150,000 homes and businesses in Texas were without electricity early Friday and another 15,000 customers were in the dark in Louisiana, local power companies said.

“Most of this storm developed right over Houston Thursday evening,” said Patrick Burke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

“Some of the rainfall was outlandishly fast,” Burke said. “Several of our reliable rain-spotters reported seeing multiple inches of rain in under an hour. That much water in a short time just accelerates the amount of damage that can happen.”

There were no confirmed reports of tornadoes overnight, but the rain comes atop several days of heavy precipitation. Some southeastern Texas communities received a total of 10 inches of rain since Tuesday, according to AccuWeather meteorologists.

Houston’s 209,000 public school students got the day off as the city’s Independent School District, the state’s largest school system, said it was shutting down its 280 campuses on Friday because of inclement weather.

Police did not have an assessment of damage or injuries early Friday, but the Houston Chronicle reported that parts of the U.S. Interstate 10 highway in the city was closed late Thursday in east Houston, stranding at least 40 motorists.

The Houston Fire Department rescued two people from a submerged car that flipped into a rain-filled ditch late Thursday, the Chronicle and other media reported.

Burke said the worst of the storm had pushed off eastward early Friday.

“The only good news is that the storm didn’t linger,” he said. “But Louisiana, Mississippi, western Alabama and southern Tennessee are all under the gun today.”

Flash flood warnings and flood watches were in effect from east Texas to Knoxville, Tennessee.

Danger persists from additional flooding along the southern Mississippi River and its tributaries, officials said.

More rain is in the forecast for the area this weekend, Burke said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Peter Graff and Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. investigators to begin hunt for cause of Texas petrochemical disaster

FILE PHOTO: A petrochemical facility is shown after Hurricane Ike hit in Deer Park, Texas September 13, 2008. REUTERS/David J. Phillip

By Collin Eaton and Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – U.S. investigators hope this week for the first time to enter the site of a massive fuel fire and chemical spill outside Houston to begin the hunt for a cause and to determine whether the operator followed safety regulations.

The blaze, at Mitsui & Co’s Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) storage facility in Deer Park, Texas, began March 17 and released toxic chemicals into the air and nearby waterways. Shipping along the largest oil port in the United States remained disrupted on Monday, as did operations at two nearby refineries.

Fumes from benzene-containing fuel and fear of another fire have prevented investigators from going into the tank farm’s “hot zone,” officials said Monday. Three tanks holding oils remain to be emptied this week, and responders continue to sop up fuels on the tank farm grounds.

Investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and Environmental Protection Agency, as well as state and local authorities, plan to enter the site once it is safe.

Access to the site, along the Houston Ship Channel, will help determine what happened and how a fire at one tank holding tens of thousands of barrels of naphtha spread quickly to 10 other giant tanks.

“The escalation of the event, looking at how the fire spread from a single tank to others in the tank battery, is certainly something we’re interested in,” said CSB lead investigator Mark Wingard, who arrived in Houston last week.

Before CSB investigators enter the site, possibly later this week, they will focus on interviewing ITC personnel and witnesses of the fire, and collecting documentation on the facility and its tanks. The CSB’s investigation will also examine the “outside impacts” of the fires, Wingard said.

“There’s huge public interest in this case,” he said. “People in this community want to know what happened and what they were exposed to.”

Access also could provide officials with information critical to state and local lawsuits accusing the company of improperly releasing tons of volatile organic compounds into the surrounding air and water.

“We need to get to what was the root cause of this event and then begin to understand any aspect of negligence or obstruction that led to the event,” Harris County Commissioner Adrián García said in an interview.

The county last week filed a lawsuit against ITC seeking to recoup the costs of emergency responders and healthcare clinics set up in response to pollution from the fire. The county has not yet estimated the cost, which Garcia said is “going to be very significant.”

An ITC spokeswoman declined to comment, citing pending litigation. In the past, a company official said ITC responded immediately to the fire and had no lack of resources to put out the fire.

Asked how long it would take for investigators to get onto the grounds, ITC Senior Vice President Brent Weber said he hoped it would be days not weeks. “They have been on the site,” Weber said on Monday. “They’re staying out of the hot zone right now.”

Fumes and clean-up efforts continued to affect shipping for a third week. Twenty-two cargo vessels were able to transit the area near the ITC tank farm on Sunday, the Coast Guard said, between 40 percent and 50 percent of normal.

Another 64 were in a queue waiting to pass on Monday. In total, 118 ships were anchored outside the port, said U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Derby Flory.

In addition to the state and county lawsuits, seven members of a Houston family have filed suit, claiming injuries from air pollution caused by the fire. Their lawsuit, which seeks $1 million in damages, alleges ITC failed to prevent the fire and did not adequately warn residents of the dangers once it began.

The seven were exposed to toluene, xylene, naphtha and benzene “causing them severe injuries and damages,” according to the lawsuit.

“The warnings were too little, too late,” said Benny Agosto Jr., who represents the family and whose firm is among at least four working to bring cases against the company.

(Reporting by Collin Eaton in Houston and Erwin Seba in Pasadena, Texas; editing by Gary McWilliams and Steve Orlofsky)

Petrochemical disaster still hampers efforts to clear Houston shipping bottleneck

Smoke covers the Houston area from a fire burning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, east of Houston, Texas, U.S., March 18, 2019. Michael Sahrman/Handout via REUTERS

HOUSTON (Reuters) – The backlog of vessels waiting to move through the Houston Ship Channel grew on Monday while it remained closed to traffic for a third day as emergency workers attempted to clear a petrochemical spill from the Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) storage facility in Deer Park, Texas, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Monday.

Thirty-one vessels waited to enter the busiest U.S. oil port on Monday, while another 31 waited to leave, up from 26, respectively, on Sunday morning. The seven-mile (11-km) section of the Houston Ship Channel from Light 116 to Tucker’s Bayou remained closed, said Coast Guard Vessel Tracking Service Watch Supervisor Ashley Dumont.

Fuels spilled after a 10-foot (3-meter) wide section of a containment barrier breached on Friday at Mitsui & Co Inc’s ITC facility outside of Houston, sending fuel, water and fire suppressant foam to a waterway that connects Houston to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Coast Guard opened the San Jacinto River to allow two-way vessel traffic for three hours until 12 p.m. CDT (1700 GMT)on Monday. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality continued to assess the contamination levels in the channel. The Coast Guard did not have a timeline to reopen the port, Dumont said.

(Reporting by Collin Eaton in Houston; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marguerita Choy)

Texas petrochemical fire spreads to more storage tanks after firefighting snag

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A raging fire at a petrochemical storage terminal in Houston has engulfed two more massive tanks after firefighting water pumps stopped working for six hours, the company said on Tuesday.

The blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) in Deer Park, Texas, has been burning since Sunday when a leaking tank containing volatile naphtha ignited and quickly spread to other tanks within close proximity, the company said.

The tanks hold tens of thousands of barrels of products used to boost gasoline octane, make solvents and plastics.

The storage terminal on the Houston Ship Channel, the nation’s busiest petrochemical port, is home to nine refineries and petrochemical storage and loading facilities.

Pumps on two boats feeding water to firefighters malfunctioned for about six hours, ITC spokesman Dale Samuelsen said. That allowed the fire to spread late Monday to the two tanks, one empty and the other containing toluene, a volatile liquid used to make nail polish remover and paint thinner.

ITC, which is owned by Japan’s Mitsui & Co, said it will bring in high-pressure pumps Tuesday morning to help firefighters trying to contain the inferno within the area of 15 closely spaced tanks.

The company said on Monday the fire, which has spewed thick, acrid smoke that is visible dozens of miles away, could burn until Wednesday. Samuelsen said he had no new timetable for when the blaze will be extinguished.

“We are still in defensive mode,” said Samuelsen. “We will be bringing in additional pumps to increase the water and foam applied to the fire.”

He said the burning tanks are within an earthen berm that is collecting water and chemicals leaking from the tanks.

Ships continued to move through the 50-mile-long channel, which is part of the Port of Houston linking refineries and chemical plants in Houston and Texas City, with the Gulf of Mexico.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Fire engulfs eight massive petrochemical storage tanks in Houston

Smoke rises from a fire burning at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, east of Houston, Texas, U.S., March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A fire at a fuels storage company at the Houston Ship Channel spread on Monday to eight massive petrochemical storage tanks, shutting schools and forcing residents in the suburb of Deer Park to stay indoors.

The fire, which sent a plume of black smoke across the city’s eastern half and was visible from 10 miles (16 km) away, began in a giant storage tank containing naphtha, a volatile component of gasoline, at about 10:30 a.m. on Sunday.

No evacuations or injuries were reported.

School officials in Deer Park, population 32,000, and nearby La Porte, Texas, with about 34,000 residents, suspended classes and told employees not to report to work on Monday.

Tanks containing naphtha and xylene, petrochemicals used to make gasoline and base oils commonly used as machine lubricants, were burning, officials of the Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) said.

The company said on Monday that a tank containing Toluene also caught fire. Toluene is used to manufacture nail polish remover and paint thinner.

The burning tanks are surrounded by several other storage tanks within a spill containment dike. Firefighters used a foam fire retardant on nearby tanks to try to limit the fire from spreading.

“ITC officials continue working with local first responders to contain the fire,” the company said in a statement. “The safety of our employees, the surrounding community and the environment is our first priority.”

Ships continued to cross the channel linking refineries and chemical plants in Houston and Texas City, with the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Coast Guard ordered ships not to dock at ITC or an adjoining terminal.

Air emissions tests detected the presence of a volatile organic compound six miles away from the facility. Levels were below those considered hazardous, ITC said.

The fire was not affecting operations at the nearby Royal Dutch Shell Plc joint-venture refinery in Deer Park, said Shell spokesman Ray Fisher.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Additional reporting by Rich McKay and Gary McWilliams; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Former President George H.W. Bush laid to rest in Texas

By Loren Elliott

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (Reuters) – Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush was laid to rest at his presidential library in College Station, Texas, on Thursday, following funeral services at his longtime church in Houston.

Bush’s casket traveled in a special train car about an hour northwest from Houston to College Station and was then carried to the gravesite behind his library by a military honor guard, in a ceremony overseen by his son and former President George W. Bush.

Bush, the 41st U.S. president, died last week in Texas at 94. His remains were flown to Texas on Wednesday following a state funeral at the Washington National Cathedral attended by President Donald Trump, the four living former presidents and foreign leaders.

“The memorial was a beautiful tribute to President Bush’s extraordinary life and a noble legacy to public service,” Trump said at a Hanukkah reception at the White House on Thursday. “He was a wonderful man. We will always remember this great statesman and beloved American patriot. He really was very special.”

Thursday’s funeral service in Houston was held at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush worshipped for more than five decades and took on a more personal tone with remarks by family members.

George W. Bush, who followed his father to the White House after President Bill Clinton’s two terms, sat in a front pew near the flag-draped casket and joined in as some 1,000 mourners sang “America the Beautiful.”

George P. Bush, son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and one of the former president’s 17 grandchildren, remembered fly fishing and sharing ice cream with the man he called “Gampy.”

James Baker, a longtime friend who served as Bush’s secretary of state, eulogized the former Republican president as a peacemaker and “a truly beautiful human being.”

“He was not considered a skilled speaker, but his deeds were quite eloquent and he demonstrated their eloquence by carving them into the hard granite of history,” Baker said.

Mourners laughed as Baker recalled how Bush would let him know a conversation was over: “‘Baker, if you’re so smart, why am I president and you’re not?'” His voice cracking at moments, Baker said he was at his friend’s deathbed last week.

Raised in an Episcopalian family in Massachusetts, Bush fused his preppy New England background with the more free-wheeling traits of his adoptive state of Texas, where he moved as a young man to work in the oil industry.

That mix was reflected in the music heard at his funeral: the St. Martin’s Parish Choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” country music star Reba McEntire performed “The Lord’s Prayer,” and the casket was carried out of the church to the thunderous strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

People pay their respects as the train carrying the casket of former President George H.W. Bush passes Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, along the route from Spring to College Station, Texas. David J. Phillip/Pool via REUTERS

LOCOMOTIVE 4141

Following the funeral service, Bush’s remains were taken by train some 80 miles (130 km) northwest to College Station for the burial alongside his wife, Barbara, who died in April, and their daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953.

Residents of small towns along the route gathered to wave at the train, a Union Pacific Corp locomotive numbered 4141 and bearing the name “George Bush 41” on the side, as it passed.

Bush, a U.S. Navy aviator who narrowly escaped death when he was shot down by Japanese forces over the Pacific Ocean during World War Two, was honored with a 21-plane flyover in a “missing man” formation before he was carried to his gravesite for a private interment.A light rain that had fallen for much of the day in College Station ended just before the train carrying his body pulled into the station.

Bush was president from 1989 to 1993, navigating the collapse of the Soviet Union and expelling former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces from oil-rich Kuwait.

He supported the passage of the American with Disabilities Act, a major civil rights law protecting disabled people from discrimination.

A patrician figure who served as vice president to Ronald Reagan, Bush lost re-election to a second term in part for failing to connect with ordinary Americans during an economic recession.

He has also been criticized for supporting tough drug laws that led to the disproportionate incarceration of black people, as well as what activists call an insufficient response to the AIDS epidemic.

But tributes in recent days have focused on the former president as a man of integrity and kindness who represented an earlier era of civility in American politics.

(Reporting by Loren Elliott in College Station, Texas; Additional reporting by Liz Hampton and Gary McWilliams in Houston, Steve Holland in Washington and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)

Houston mourns former U.S. President George H.W. Bush

People pay their respects as the flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush lies in repose at St. Martin's Episcopal Church Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, in Houston. David J. Phillip/Pool via REUTERS

By Liz Hampton

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush will be mourned on Thursday at the Houston church where he worshipped for many years, a final public farewell before his remains are taken to their resting place at his Texas presidential library.

Bush, the 41st U.S. president, died last week in Texas aged 94. His remains were flown to Texas on Wednesday evening after a formal state funeral at Washington’s National Cathedral.

The casket was accompanied by members of his family, and taken by motorcade to St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.

The church remained open through the night so mourners, who began lining up on Wednesday morning, could pay their final respects.

Country music star Reba McEntire was due to be among the musical performers at the service, which was scheduled to start at 10 a.m. CT (1600 GMT).

Following the funeral at St. Martin’s, where Bush and his late wife, Barbara Bush, were long-time worshippers, a train will carry his remains about 80 miles (130 km) northwest to College Station, Texas, where he will be laid to rest at his presidential library.

The train is a Union Pacific Corp locomotive, numbered 4141 and bearing the name “George Bush 41” on the side that has been in service since 2005.

Bush, who narrowly escaped death as a naval aviator who was shot down by Japanese forces over the Pacific Ocean in World War Two, will be buried with military honors, including a flyover by 21 aircraft from the U.S. Navy.

Bush was president from 1989 to 1993, navigating the collapse of the Soviet Union and expelling former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces from oil-rich Kuwait.

He supported the passage of the American with Disabilities Act, a major civil rights law protecting disabled people from discrimination.

A patrician figure, Bush was voted out of office in part for failing to connect with ordinary Americans during an economic recession. He has also been criticized for supporting tough drug laws that led to the disproportionate incarceration of black people, as well as what activists call an insufficient response to the AIDS epidemic when he was in power during some of its deadliest years.

But many tributes in recent days have focused on the former Republican president as a man of integrity and kindness who represented an earlier era of civility in American politics. That image has been burnished in recent years by the divisiveness and anger in the United States that accompanied the rise of President Donald Trump.

(Reporting by Liz Hampton in Houston; Additional reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston, Steve Holland in Washington, D.C., and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Texan who published 3-D guns plans jailed on sex assault charge

Cody Wilson, a Texan 3-D printed gun maker who flew to Taiwan as police investigated an accusation he had sex with an underage girl, stands in the lobby of Your Hotel in Taipei, Taiwan, September 20, 2018 in this still image from CCTV footage. Courtesy "Your Hotel"/via Reuters TV

(Reuters) – A Texas man running a 3-D printed guns company was booked into a Houston jail on a charge of sexual assault on Sunday after Taiwanese officials sent him back to the United States, where he is accused of having sex with an underage girl.

Cody Wilson, 30, flew to Taiwan after learning he was under investigation, police said, and was picked up by Taiwanese authorities on Friday after his U.S. passport was annulled. He was deported to the United States on Saturday.

He was booked into Harris County jail in Houston on Sunday, according to the jail’s website.

Wilson’s attorney, Samy Khalil, said in a statement late on Sunday: “We are glad that Cody is back in Texas again where we can work with him on his case. That’s our focus right now, representing our client and preparing his defense.”

As the founder of Defense Distributed, Wilson became a notable figure in the U.S. debate over guns after the company posted on the internet the blueprints for plastic guns that can be made with a 3-D printer.

The files could previously be downloaded for free but a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction last month that blocked the posting of the blueprints online.

Wilson was placed under investigation after a counselor told authorities on Aug. 22 a 16-year-old girl said she was paid $500 to have sex with Wilson at an Austin hotel, police said.

Investigators later interviewed the girl and obtained a warrant for Wilson’s arrest on Wednesday, but by then he had caught a flight to Taiwan. Police said at the time they were aware Wilson traveled often for business but that it was not clear why he had flown to Taiwan.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)

Texas Governor unveils school safety plan after deadly shooting

Community members stood in support as students and administrators returned for the first day of class since a deadly mass shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Pu Ying Huang

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Texas Governor Greg Abbott unveiled a $110 million program intended to increase school safety by putting additional trained marshals inside schools and more closely monitoring social media for threats in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting earlier this month.

The plan was announced nearly two weeks after a 17-year-old armed with a shotgun and pistol killed 10 students and educators at Santa Fe High School in the Houston area.

It followed a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February in which 17 people, mostly students, were massacred.

“Everybody in this entire process and everybody in the state of Texas never wants to see another occasion where innocent students are gunned down in their own schools,” Abbott told a news conference in Dallas on Wednesday.

The proposed funding works out to about $20 per student in a state that has about 5.5 million students enrolled in its public schools.

The 40-point plan, which followed meetings last week between Abbott and education and law enforcement officials, calls for enhanced mental health resources for students and new metal detectors for extra security at schools, Abbott said in a statement.

The Texas Democratic Party issued a statement condemning the governor’s plan, claiming that he failed to directly address gun crimes that occur in the United States.

“Nothing in Abbott’s plans address the reality that it is too easy for a weapon to end up in the hands of someone wanting to cause harm,” Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.

Abbott is an ardent defender of the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Soon after the shooting at Santa Fe High School he said that any proposed legal changes that he would consider to improve school safety would “protect Second Amendment rights.”

His proposals include eliminating a rule that requires some school marshals to store their weapons in a safe while on campus.

Abbott said he would ask lawmakers to consider legislation to allow law enforcement, families, school staff or a district attorney to file a petition seeking the removal of firearms from a potentially dangerous person only after legal due process was provided.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Scott Malone)