The Perfect Storm For A Toxic Stew of Health and Environmental Hazards in Houston’s Floodwaters
AUG. 31, 2017 nytimes.com
Officials in Houston are just beginning to grapple with the health and environmental risks that lurk in the waters dumped by Hurricane Harvey, a stew of toxic chemicals, sewage, debris and waste that still floods much of the city.
Flooded sewers are stoking fears of cholera, typhoid and other infectious diseases. Runoff from the city’s sprawling petroleum and chemicals complex contains any number of hazardous compounds. Lead, arsenic and other toxic and carcinogenic elements may be leaching from some two dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area.
Porfirio Villarreal, a spokesman for the Houston Health Department, said the hazards of the water enveloping the city were self-evident.
“There’s no need to test it,” he said. “It’s contaminated. There’s millions of contaminants.”
He said health officials were urging people to stay out of the water if they could, although it is already too late for tens of thousands.
“We’re telling people to avoid the floodwater as much as possible. Don’t let your children play in it. And if you do touch it, wash it off,” Mr. Villarreal said. “Remember, this is going to go on for weeks.”
Harris County, home to Houston, hosts more than two dozen current and former toxic waste sites designated under the federal Superfund program. The sites contain what the Environmental Protection Agency calls legacy contamination: lead, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, benzene and other toxic and carcinogenic compounds from industrial activities many years ago.
“It feels like someone has a hand on the crest of your noses and is pushing down on your nose and eyes,” said Bryan Parras, who lives in the East End area of Houston. “You start to get headaches, your eyes start itching, your throat gets scratchy. I noticed it going outside for just a second."
Daniel Cohan, an air pollution expert at Rice University, said the emissions could be even greater than what the companies are reporting to regulators, given the difficulties in ascertaining exactly what has been leaked. Several air quality monitors were also rendered inoperable by the hurricane.
“The emissions could be many times higher,”
An E.P.A. spokesman, David Gray, said in a statement that the agency would inspect two flooded Superfund sites in Corpus Christi, but he did not specify which ones or say whether additional sites elsewhere in Texas would be checked.
Residents near one of the region's most dangerous toxic dumps are increasingly concerned that the raging San Jacinto River, swollen to record heights by Tropical Storm Harvey, could be degrading concrete caps covering the site, allowing cancer causing dioxins to escape into the water.
The San Jacinto Waste Pits
, where waste from a nearby paper mill was buried, were at one time located on the banks of the river, but as the waterway changed course, they became submerged and have been the subject of concern and lawsuits for years.
Now, based on observations of the damage the flooded river is doing to concrete bunkers at the Interstate 10 bridge near Channelview, concern is growing about what might be happening to the caps covering the Superfund site itself.
Houston also lies at the center of the nation’s oil and chemical industry, its bustling shipping channel home to almost 500 industrial sites.
Damaged refineries and other oil facilities have already released more than two million pounds of hazardous substances into the air this week, including nitrogen oxide as well as benzene and other volatile organic compounds, according to a tally by the Environmental Defense Fund of company filings to Texas state environmental regulators.
Houston’s sewer systems have also long struggled with overflows, drawing scrutiny from federal regulators who worry about raw sewage seeping into groundwater.
“When it rains, the sewer pipes get infiltrated with storm water. The pipes exceed their capacity and you get discharge of a mix of sewer water and storm water,” Erin Bonney Casey, research director at Bluefield Research, a water-sector consultancy based in Boston, said.
“As you can imagine, this raises major concerns around disease and contamination of local water supplies.”
In Washington, the E.P.A. delayed implementing chemical plant safety rules designed to help prevent and mitigate chemical accidents after President Donald Trump took office.
"The rules that were delayed were designed to reduce the risk of chemical releases," said Peter Zalzal, special projects director and lead attorney at the E.D.F. "This kind of situation underscores why we shouldn't be rolling these rules back."
Earlier this year, legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate that would repeal the new E.P.A. rules. The bill was cosponsored by Texas Republican House members, and the companion bill in the Senate had the backing of both Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
Many who sponsored the legislation have accepted donations from the chemical industry, the American Chemical Council and Arkema Inc.
Arkema and its industry trade organization, the American Chemistry Council, had filed comments objecting to several of these key components of the proposed chemical safety rules.
On Thursday morning, the Arkema chemical manufacturing and storage facility outside of Houston burst into flames, and black smoke billowed out after Harvey's floodwaters knocked out equipment used to keep the plant's volatile chemicals cool.
Fifteen sheriff's deputies were taken to the hospital for inhaling the irritants and a mandatory evacuation is in place for all residents living within 1.5 mules of the chemical plant in southeast Texas.
A public records search indicates the plant was censured with $90,000 in in fines as recently as February for violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration
relating to "management of highly hazardous chemicals."
The stricter E.P.A. rules for chemical plants like Arkema would have taken place March 14 but following industry lobbying, E.P.A. chief Scott Pruitt delayed the Obama-era rule until 2019.
good thing president orange julius is gutting the epa's budget