Hurricane Harvey, Toxic Waste Sites, and Pollution

Bikes For Harvey
photo via Yellow Bike Project

In the week when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, more than 46 industrial facilities released an estimated 4.6 million pounds of chemicals and pollutants into the air (an amount that exceeded legal state limits). That’s according to an analysis conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund, Air Alliance Houston and Public Citizen and reported by the New York Times.

And that’s not all. At least 14 toxic waste sites have also been flooded or damaged and nearly 100 spills of hazardous substances have been reported. You can look through a map (produced by the New York Times) of all the reported spill sites here>>

Hurricane Harvey Pollution

photo via the New York Times

The nonprofit organization Environment Texas is also reporting that there have been reports of spilled oil, gas, and other fluids in at least 20 different locations. One report produced by the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry) found that, “oil stains are visible in trees 10-feet above ground level at a site about one-half mile from the location pad.”

So where is it all coming from?
As you probably know, Houston is a major industrial hub. Because of the storm, some of these refineries and chemical plants were forced to shut down (and release chemicals in the air while doing so). Other facilities were actually damaged by the storm and released chemicals/oil involuntarily. Famously, a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas lost its electricity in the storm, which forced the chemicals it was storing to explode and catch fire. Still other sites are home to wastewater storage tanks and even storage pits, raising fears of water contamination as the floodwaters inundated them.

What’s the impact?
At the moment, it’s difficult to asses the full impact of the situation. As the New York Times reports, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has said that they’re not detecting emissions at a level that could be harmful to human health. The EPA has also issued a statement saying that residents should not be concerned about air quality issues. 

However, many environmental organizations and groups on the ground remain vigilant about the longterm environmental effects from Hurricane Harvey, especially when it comes to the polluted floodwaters. As Environment Texas reports, research from past oil spills have found evidence of neurological damage, eye irritation, and breathing problems in exposed residents. Houston residents are reporting itchiness, coughing, and skin infections from dealing with the floodwaters as they begin to try and reenter and repair their homes.

What comes next? How can Texas better prepare for the future?
Already, several environmental organizations are calling for new regulations to make Texas’ oil, gas, and chemical industries more resilient in the future (especially as climate change threatens to make extreme weather events more frequent).

Texas’ lax reporting requirements have also come under criticism since Hurricane Harvey. The state’s rules make it difficult for Texans to know exactly which chemicals companies are storing in their facilities and using in drilling operations. As the Texas Tribune reports, federal law requires companies to make a list of certain hazardous chemicals on site and submit them to state and local officials in something called a Tier II report. For years, these reports were available upon request to homeowners, the media, and the public. In 2014, when he was still attorney general, now-Governor Greg Abbot ruled that state agencies can withhold that information, citing national security risks.

How can you help?

  • In order to ensure that the Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts are equitable, the Sierra Club has teamed up with affected communities to raise money. They’re asking people to create a fundraising page here>> Every dollar you raise will go toward groups working on the ground to mitigate the hurricane’s environmental effects—from chemical hazards to structural damage—and support urgent relief efforts.
  • Many Texas farmers and ranchers also suffered severe damage to their property during the hurricane. The nonprofit organization Texas Center For Local Food is leading a fundraising effort to help support sustainable and organic family farmers and ranchers as they rebuild after the storm. You can donate here>>
  • The Yellow Bike Project is refurbishing bikes and sending them to those who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey (both on the coast and in the Austin area). If you’ve got a bike that you don’t use anymore and would like to donate, you can drop it off at their shop(1216 Webberville Road) anytime during business hours. They’re also looking for volunteer mechanics who can help fix up the bikes before they’re sent out to our fellow Texans in need. You can learn more about how to sign up to volunteer here>>

 

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