As the people of Houston and the surrounding areas began to deal with the devastation that Hurricane Harvey had wreaked on their communities, they started to notice some alarming smells. People took to Twitter to describe the “unbearable” chemical smell hanging over the area. When a chemical plant caught fire in the nearby town of Crosby, a first responder was hospitalized after inhaling the fumes.
Clearly, the storm and the ensuing flooding had caused further problems, and people wanted answers.
Our state affiliate Environment Texas, which has been monitoring the chemical plants and oil refineries in the Houston area for years, was there to answer people’s questions about the public health impacts of the storm. Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger appeared on CBS News and MSNBC on Aug. 31 to discuss the fire at the Arkema, Inc., chemical plant in Crosby, which caught fire after floodwaters disabled the cooling systems that kept its combustible chemicals at safe temperatures.
"We know that this facility has been listed by the Houston Chronicle as one of the most dangerous in the Houston region,” Metzger told MSNBC. “According to its own risk management plan filed with the federal government, in a worst-case scenario, an accident could impact up to 23 miles around, or about a million people. It appears that we're not experiencing that worst-case scenario now. But it is a very hazardous facility, and there are real risks associated with it."
Advocates with U.S. PIRG's national Toxics program also weighed in. In an article for the Huffington Post, U.S. PIRG Toxics Program Director Kara Cook-Schultz pointed out that the tragedy in Crosby could have been avoided if Obama-era safety regulations had been allowed to take effect. “Under the new rules,” she wrote, “Arkema and other plants would have to engage in more coordination with local first responders to plan for incidents and make it easier for community members to learn about plant dangers.”
The new rules, which in June the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would not allow to take effect until next year, would also have helped the cleanup process. “It is possible that the organic chemicals at the Arkema plant could be neutralized,” Cook-Schultz wrote. “However, the public cannot verify that, because Arkema does not provide information about the exact chemicals stored at their facility. Under the proposed rules delayed by the Trump administration, Arkema would have to provide that information to the public in the future.”
Environment Texas also put a spotlight on an even more widespread issue: a dangerous spike in emissions from plants as they shut down due to the storm. An Environment Texas press release noted that when a refinery or chemical plant stops in preparation for a storm, there can be an increase in emissions because pollution-control devices require stable, higher temperatures to operate properly. These emissions, often illegal, can be exacerbated by poor design and training, old equipment and waiting until the last minute to begin the shutdown.
Sifting through data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Environment Texas catalogued the emissions from 26 affected plants and refineries, totaling more than 2 million pounds of harmful air pollution. Chevron Phillips, for example, told the TCEQ that it expects to exceed permitted limits for several hazardous pollutants, such as 1,3-butadiene, benzene and ethylene, during shutdown procedures.
“Any release of carcinogens (like benzene and 1,3-butadiene) adds to the increased cancer risk for those living near these plants,” Metzger told The Washington Post. The release of “respiratory irritants,” he said, “adds to the respiratory problems people in the area suffer from at high rates.”
The air wasn’t the only thing contaminated. “Houston didn’t just flood—it flooded with contaminated water,” said Brian Zabcik, clean water advocate at Environment Texas. “Anyone who was forced to swim or wade through high waters should be alert for any possible signs of illness, especially stomach or gut problems.”
Environment Texas found records of at least 12 sewage overflows, as well as toxic chemical spills from 36 industrial facilities—13 of which entered adjacent bayous and waterways.
As Texas recovers from Harvey, U.S. PIRG and Environment Texas will work to ensure the lessons learned in this tragedy prevent or mitigate future disasters.
Cook-Schultz encouraged Americans to “urge the Trump administration to implement the regulations requiring more coordination with emergency management, to have greater safeguards on these facilities, and to provide more money for research into non-toxic alternatives for many of these chemical plants.”
Metzger called on industries that deal with hazardous chemicals to modernize their facilities to avert the release of dangerous pollutants during crises like Hurricane Harvey.
Zabcik focused on ways to mitigate flooding and water pollution. “While any city would have flooded with 50 inches of rain, Houston’s development patterns have undoubtedly made the city’s flooding problems worse,” he said. “We’ve already been working in Houston to promote green infrastructure in new construction, which can reduce runoff and water pollution. Harvey’s devastation shows that smart and responsible development is crucial to Houston’s continued growth.”
More information about green infrastructure is available in Environment Texas’ recent report, "Catching The Rain." Environment Texas released that report in collaboration with Frontier Group, The Public Interest Network’s in-house think tank, which has for years been studying extreme weather, stormwater infrastructure, toxics and more. In the days after the storm hit, Frontier Group published a comprehensive list of their resources, including reports and blog posts, that may be useful to the public, the media and policy-makers seeking to make sense of the disaster.