We were all heartened by the scenes of courage and generosity in the midst of the devastating flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. The people of Houston came together to help each other, simply as human beings, lending comfort and aid to individuals and families, and rescuing those in dire straits.
But as the cleanup and recovery continue, a more indelible picture emerges, one that exemplifies the dangers inherent in denying or ignoring the stark truth: climate change has brought us to a new normal of storm frequency and intensification. The irony is that Harvey hit an area of the U.S., referred to by some as “petrochemical alley,” that is home to chemical plants and refineries which produce about a third of the nation’s oil needs. This is, after all, Texas.
As with Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and any storm that causes major flooding, Harvey has left Houston with the difficult but expected issues of mold, sewage and bacteria. What differentiates this event is the industrial pollution and toxic chemical emissions that occurred due to the storm.
In preparation for the hurricane, it became necessary to shut down the refineries and chemical plants. In doing so, as standard industry practice, concerns for safety require flaring – burning off – of gases that might combust due to power outages or extreme weather events. When plants start up again, flaring does too. With so many plants shutting down and then starting up at the same time, enormous emissions of toxic chemicals – well beyond EPA limits – were released, including benzene, nitrogen oxide, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, toulene and xylene.
Benzene, for example, is a notorious carcinogen. Long-term exposure to excessive levels of benzene in the air is known to cause leukemia, but any inhalation may cause dizziness, respiratory distress, or even unconsciousness. The “safety” of flaring, which is perfectly legal under the circumstances, can then be seen as a relative term, especially considering the reported effects of emissions on low-income “fence-line” communities like Manchester in east Houston, which is in close proximity to the greatest concentration of the plants. Here’s where environmental degradation intersects with environmental justice.
In addition to deliberate emissions, storage tanks damaged by the heavy rains allowed open air emissions of fumes from petrochemical products as wells as spills.
How then can residents be assured of the safety of the air they breathe during and after such a significant event?
On any given day in any community, air quality monitoring plays an important role in the health of children with asthma, the elderly, and anyone who might be impacted by adverse levels of ozone and pollutants. However, air quality detection instruments can be damaged during major storms like Harvey – or they may be dismantled to prevent damage to them. By the time they are put back in operation, a significant emissions event may be over and no longer measurable. And even when monitors are in place, they are stationary, so their accuracy and reliability can be dependent on wind patterns. The air we all share does not recognize borders.
Initial estimates and reports of the amounts of hazardous chemicals released in response to, or because of Harvey, varied greatly. In some cases they were underestimated, flawed or non-existent. For example, on August 27, next to east Houston’s Manchester neighborhood, damage to a light crude storage tank owned by Valero Energy Partners released a cloud of toxic compounds. The company first reported that this amounted to seven pounds of the carcinogenic chemical benzene and that they had found “no detectable levels of emissions in the community.” The community would likely disagree with this assessment. Valero has since informed the EPA that it believes its original report to the State of Texas Environmental Electronic Reporting System significantly underestimated the amount of volatile organic chemicals and benzene released. The EPA says it is currently investigating. Assessments are also being made of hurricane-related incidents at other facilities, including a few Superfund sites and a previously underreported gasoline tank leak of 11,000 barrels owned by Magellan Midstream in the Galena Park terminal.
It will take some time for the truth to come out about the chemical releases and spills that occurred because of Harvey – if the truth comes out at all. What we do know is that there will be more frequent, and more intense, Harveys. We know that the current administration does not believe in climate change even though climate change does not hinge on belief – it is a scientific fact. We know that the current fiscal year 2018 budget proposal includes slashes to the EPA’s budget. And we also know that Scott Pruitt, director of the EPA, has been working hard and successfully to undermine the very agency that he oversees.
Meanwhile, many families in the greater Houston area will be dealing with Hurricane Harvey’s associated health problems for years to come.