Houston is still struggling to cope with the impact of Hurricane Harvey, as many parts of the city are still under water. But the worst damage done by the storm may be yet to come, as receding floodwaters have revealed widespread chemical contamination stemming from the city’s petrochemical plants.
As the “apocalyptic” floodwaters in Houston and other parts of east Texas have been rising thanks to Hurricane Harvey, media attention has been largely focused on the immediate human impact, such as displacement and property damage. However, with much of Houston underwater, the environmental impact – and its short- and long-term effects on public health – deserve substantial attention as well.
Houston is home to several toxic Superfund sites, as well as numerous petrochemical and oil refining facilities, many of which were found to be leaking during the storm. Though water levels are starting to decline, concern is growing that a new, more persistent crisis may be beginning for Houston residents.
Texas is home to numerous Superfund sites, areas identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as containing highly hazardous waste. Such sites are usually targeted for cleanup efforts. Harris County, which includes Houston, is home to no less than sixteen such sites, the highest number of any county in Texas. As of Tuesday, an estimated 30 percent of the entire county was underwater.
One of those sites is the San Jacinto Waste Pits, whose toxic history dates back to the 1960s when a contractor working for a nearby paper mill began dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of cancer-causing dioxin waste into open pits along the San Jacinto river. Though it has been classified as a Superfund site for over a decade, cleanup efforts have gone nowhere, as the cleanup plan proposed by the EPA still has yet to be implemented.
Now, with catastrophic flooding in the area, the low-lying site – already prone to leaks prior to Harvey – has been of particular concern. An Army Corps of Engineers report released last year noted that the site “is subject to flooding from storm surges generated by both tropical storms (i.e. hurricanes) and extra-tropical storms.” Some locals have reported that the entire site is now underwater, though local newspapers have yet to confirm this.
@abc13houston just a reminder the toxic waste dump on San Jacinto River is under water
— Ernest Rogers (@sadley696969) August 30, 2017
— CATIfishing.com (@texaslunker) August 29, 2017
Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, told the Washington Post that the risk of contamination from the San Jacinto waste pits and the fifteen other Superfund sites in Harris County involve “the flooding picking up contaminants as it goes.”
“If the water picks up contaminated sediment from sites, that may get deposited in areas where people frequent — residential properties, parks, ballfields — that were never contaminated before,” she added.
However, the Superfund sites don’t represent the greatest environmental threat. Houston’s massive petrochemical industry is estimated to have already released millions of pounds of pollution into the air and an unknown quantity of chemicals into the floodwaters. The New York Times reported that plants within the storm’s path “are responsible for roughly 25 percent of the United States’s petroleum refining, more than 44 percent of its ethylene production, 40 percent of its specialty chemical feedstock and more than half of its jet fuel.”
According to the local advocacy group Environment Texas, voluntary shutdowns of oil refineries in the area have released more than 2 million pounds of pollution based on initial reports provided to Texas regulators. Such shutdowns often exceed permitted limits for several hazardous pollutants, such as cancer-causing benzene, as excess chemicals are “burned off” as the facility prepares to cease its normal functions.
Such excess emissions of pollutants are convenient for the industry, as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality shut down its air quality monitors in Houston prior to the storm to avoid storm-related damage. However, the Environmental Integrity project noted in a recent report that the amount of projected Harvey-related air pollution will be equal to nearly 39 percent of total unauthorized emissions in the Houston area that occurred last year.
"TCEQ shut down all of its air quality monitors in the Houston area to avoid damage. Plants & refineries are left on the honor system." https://t.co/UivdpbXmYJ
— Ortal Ullman (@UCSOrtal) August 29, 2017
Several locals have complained to the press and on social media regarding horrible chemical smells in their communities that appeared after Harvey made landfall. Nayeli Olmos, a Houston resident, told the Houston Press that she initially thought the strong chemical odor in her neighborhood “would go away on its own, but this morning it was still here, and it feels like whenever it rains the odor gets stronger.” She added that the stench seemed to be “all over east Houston.” Several locals have noted that the smell is strongest in areas near refineries.
According to Bryan Parras, an activist at the grassroots environmental justice group TEJAS, some residents are experiencing “headaches, sore throat, scratchy throat and itchy eyes” as a result of the smell. Some residents, unable to leave their homes or other areas due to the flooding, have been forced to continuously inhale the fumes.
— Raquel de Anda (@deAndaAnda) August 27, 2017
@DisasterPIO There is a widespread gas smell in Houston's East End. Any info?
— RFH (@rfh02) August 27, 2017
In addition to concerns about air quality, some oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, have acknowledged that Hurricane Harvey damaged some of their refineries, resulting in the release of unknown quantities of hazardous pollutants. ExxonMobil said Tuesday that two of its refineries in the Houston area had been damaged, resulting in the release of over 1,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide and unknown quantities of other chemicals after the collapse of a storage tank and a sulfur thermal oxidizer.
While the extent of the damage will remain unknown until well after the floodwaters have receded, there seems to be mounting evidence that Houston’s massive petrochemical industry and the toxic legacy of its numerous Superfund sites are bound to have long-term effects on both human and environmental health in the greater Houston area.
Top photo: The Flint Hills Resources oil refinery near downtown Houston on, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP/David J. Phillip)