This article was published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuse of power, and The Texas Tribune, a local nonprofit, non-partisan newsroom that informs and interacts with Texans. . Subscribe to receive The biggest stories of ProPublica as soon as they are published, and subscribe The Short Weekly to get up-to-date with essential coverage of the Texas issues.
AUSTIN, Texas – More than five hours after a legislative debate on voting restrictions and border security began last week, a Texas lawmaker made a final attempt to bolster the state’s electricity grid and, this doing so, prevent deaths from carbon monoxide.
On August 27, State Representative Erin Zwiener, a Democrat from Driftwood, just outside Austin, proposed an amendment that would redirect $ 250 million from a 1 , $ 8 billion to improve the reliability of the electricity grid. The measure, she told her colleagues, could prevent “our fellow citizens from dying of carbon monoxide poisoning during a winter storm”.
Zwiener’s amendment came months after a April survey by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News found that a weeklong storm in February that left millions of residents without electricity also resulted in the largest carbon monoxide poisoning event in recent history the United States. At least 17 people were killed by the gas and more than 1,400 were hospitalized.
The investigation revealed weak ties at all levels of government, including the state’s failure to regulate the electricity grid and lawmakers repeatedly refused to act on legislation that would have required alarms of carbon monoxide in residences.
“There were a lot of people taking risks to try to stay warm enough. Honestly, we are lucky to have lost as few people as we did to carbon monoxide poisoning, ”Zwiener said in a recent interview, adding that she had the news outlets ” last part of the investigation in mind when she proposed the amendment.
The amendment failed. The author of the border bill, the state Representative Greg Bonnen, a Republican from Friendswood, said he opposed cutting funding for border security.
In the six months since the storm, lawmakers have taken no drastic action to protect most Texas residents from carbon monoxide poisoning in the home.
In June, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, enacted a more limited measure updating state building codes, which would require carbon monoxide alarms in homes built or renovated from 2022. The requirement would not apply to unincorporated areas. unless counties choose to adopt the new standards, and cities could opt out of the provision.
More importantly, the new law does not require carbon monoxide alarms in the state’s nearly 10 million existing homes and apartments.
Public health experts warn that more needs to be done to protect the lives of residents.
Requiring carbon monoxide alarms in newly constructed homes “helps stop the bleeding,” said John Riddle, president of the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters, but “it would take years and years and years” to that carbon monoxide alarms be installed in the vast majority of homes in the state. Riddle said that at a minimum, existing homes with gas appliances that produce carbon monoxide should have them.
Before the legislative change, Texas was one of six states with no statewide requirements for carbon monoxide alarms. The new law still leaves Texas weaker regulations than 29 other states that require devices in existing residences.
Carbon monoxide poisoning Often follow storms or other natural disasters in which people lose electricity and seek out other sources of electricity, including generators and cars. And climate change contributes to more severe storms, like hurricanes, scientists say, making the danger more frequent.
Days after the Zwiener Amendment was rejected in Texas, Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, cutting power to more than a million people, resulting in at least four deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning and send close to four dozen residents at the hospital after being exposed to gas. Louisiana, like Texas, requires carbon monoxide alarms only in newly built or recently renovated homes.
“Storm-related power outages will lead to additional outbreaks of carbon monoxide poisoning, similar to what happened in Texas in February of this year,” said Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, co-director Capital Medical Center Poison Center and an expert on carbon monoxide poisoning, said Thursday in an interview.
Johnson-Arbor is one of the public health and fire safety experts who recommend that every home, and not just newly built or renovated homes, be equipped with a carbon monoxide alarm. Alarms are inexpensive and are the only way to detect colorless, odorless gas.
The regular legislative session ended in May, and only Abbott has the power to call a special session and decide what issues lawmakers will address during that window. The governor has so far required lawmakers to return for two 30-day special sessions, but his agenda has not focused on the winter storm. Instead, he called on lawmakers to tackle partisan priorities such as border security – including the state’s construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border – voting restrictions and ban transgender youth join school sports teams that match their gender identity.
Abbott did not respond to requests for comment.
The last extraordinary session ended on Thursday. If the governor does not include broader measures on carbon monoxide in another special session, the first chance for lawmakers to act would be in 2023.
“If we don’t act, people will lose their lives,” said State Senator José Menéndez, a Democrat from San Antonio.
The lack of strict statewide regulations has created a patchwork of local policies across Texas. Some of the state’s most populous cities and counties require carbon monoxide alarms to be installed in existing buildings, but even those regulations are flawed, experts said.
For example, Austin voted in 2017 to become the first major city in Texas to require carbon monoxide alarms in any residences with gas appliances or attached garages, but city inspectors usually only check existing buildings for alarms following complaints from tenants, said Moses Rodriguez, supervisor at the enforcement office of the Austin code. Last year, Austin recorded just 36 violations for missing, improperly located, or improper power source carbon monoxide alarms in rental properties, according to the city code department. Austin homeowners are also required to comply with the law, but owner-occupied homes are generally not subject to inspections.
In Harris County, which includes Houston, at least five people have died and about 600 people were hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning during the February storm.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who during the winter storm called carbon monoxide poisoning a “disaster within a disaster,” said her office was discussing steps to “make carbon monoxide detectors are commonplace in our county. “
“Our infrastructure and regulatory framework were not designed to withstand the relentless impacts of a winter storm, and that has been all too clear with the tragic deaths we have witnessed from monoxide poisoning. of carbon, ”Hidalgo wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, these tragedies can be avoided. “
Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for Hidalgo, said that due to the risk of prolonged power outages, talks are just as urgent now, as the hurricane season accelerates, as they were after the winter storm.
Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said that in November the Texas Fire Marshals Association will discuss potential changes to state law the group can support during the 2023 legislative session to help to prevent generalized poisonings.
“We in this part of the country haven’t really pushed carbon monoxide poisoning because it wasn’t something we’ve seen so often,” Christensen said, referring to the need for more. education on prevention and alarms. “And unfortunately we now realize that is going to be a key factor.”