A toxic onslaught from the nation’s petrochemical hub was largely overshadowed by the record-shattering deluge of Hurricane Harvey as residents and first responders struggled to save lives and property.
More than a half-year after floodwaters swamped America’s fourth-largest city, the extent of this environmental assault is beginning to surface, while questions about the long-term consequences for human health remain unanswered.
County, state and federal records pieced together by The Associated Press and The Houston Chronicle reveal a far more widespread toxic impact than authorities publicly reported after the storm slammed into the Texas coast in late August and then stalled over the Houston area.
Some 500 chemical plants, 10 refineries and more than 6,670 miles of intertwined oil, gas and chemical pipelines line the nation’s largest energy corridor. Nearly half a billion gallons of industrial wastewater mixed with storm water surged out of just one chemical plant in Baytown, east of Houston on the upper shores of Galveston Bay.
Benzene, vinyl chloride, butadiene and other known human carcinogens were among the dozens of tons of industrial toxins released into surrounding neighborhoods and waterways following Harvey’s torrential rains.
In all, reporters catalogued more than 100 Harvey-related toxic releases — on land, in water and in the air. Most were never publicized, and in the case of two of the biggest ones, the extent or potential toxicity of the releases was initially understated.
Only a handful of the industrial spills have been investigated by federal regulators, reporters found.
Texas regulators say they have investigated 89 incidents, but have yet to announce any enforcement actions.
Testing by state and federal regulators of soil and water for contaminants was largely limited to Superfund toxic waste sites.
Based on widespread air monitoring, including flyovers, officials repeatedly assured the public that post-Harvey air pollution posed no health threat. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official in charge now says these general assessments did not necessarily reflect local “hotspots” with potential risk to people.
Regulators alerted the public to dangers from just two, well-publicized toxic disasters: the Arkema chemical plant northeast of Houston that exploded and burned for days, and a nearby dioxin-laden federal Superfund site whose protective cap was damaged by the raging San Jacinto River.
Hurricane Harvey floods the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas.
Samuel Coleman, who was the EPA’s acting regional administrator during Harvey, said the priority in the immediate aftermath was “addressing any environmental harms as quickly as possible as opposed to making announcements about what the problem was.”
In hindsight, he said, it might not have been a bad idea to inform the public about the worst of “dozens of spills.”
Local officials say the state’s industry-friendly approach has weakened efforts by the city of Houston and surrounding Harris County to build cases against and force cleanup by the companies, many of them repeat environmental offenders.
“The public will probably never know the extent of what happened to the environment after Harvey. But the individual companies of course know,” said Rock Owens, supervising environmental attorney for Harris County, home to Houston and 4.7 million residents.
The chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Bryan Shaw, declined when asked by lawmakers in January to identify the worst spills and their locations. He told a legislative subcommittee hearing he could not publicly discuss spills until his staff completed a review.
The amount of post-Harvey government testing contrasts sharply with what happened after two other major Gulf Coast hurricanes. After Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008, state regulators collected 85 sediment samples to measure the contamination; more than a dozen violations were identified and cleanups were carried out, according to a state review.
In Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters ravaged New Orleans in 2005, the EPA and Louisiana officials examined about 1,800 soil samples over 10 months, EPA records showed.
“Now the response is completely different,” said Scott Frickel, an environmental sociologist formerly at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Frickel, now at Brown University, called the Harvey response “unconscionable” given Houston’s exponentially larger industrial footprint.
Reporters covered some environmental crises as they happened, such as AP’s exclusive on the flooding of toxic waste sites and the Chronicle’s Arkema warnings before fires broke out. But the sheer quantity of spills was impossible to document in real time.
Academic researchers are now trying to fill in the gaps in environmental monitoring, helped by grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. One project, a Harvey-related public health registry for Houston, was funded just this month but is not yet underway.
“People are left in a state of limbo of not knowing if they were exposed or not — or if they were, what the implications are for their health,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, who oversaw federal public health responses to the Superstorm Sandy and Deepwater Horizon disasters while at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Scientists say the paucity of data also could hamstring efforts to prepare for and mitigate damage from future violent weather events that climatologists predict will happen with increasing frequency.”
When it meets moisture, hydrogen chloride gas becomes hydrochloric acid, which can burn, suffocate and kill.
Between lulls in Harvey’s pounding torrents on Aug. 28, an 18-inch pipeline leak at Williams Midstream Services Inc. unleashed a plume of the chemical near the intersection of two major highways in La Porte, southeast of Houston, where the San Jacinto River meets the 50-mile ship channel. It’s the petrochemical corridor’s main artery that empties into Galveston Bay.
A toxic cloud spread about a quarter-mile in an industrial sector as firefighters and police rushed to shut down roads, blared neighborhood sirens and robo-dispatched phone and text messages warning people to stay indoors.
Two hours ticked by before a county hazardous materials response unit — lucky to find a road not under water — arrived and ended the danger with the help of a crew from a nearby plant.
The spill was among dozens barely noticed at the time, records show. A county pollution control inspector, Johnathan Martin, wrote in his report that he could not safely monitor the toxic plume but believed it did not reach homes less than a mile away. There were no reports of injuries.
On land, the deluge — five feet of rain in some spots — appears to have scoured the top soil, according to separate testing efforts by scientists from Texas A&M and Rice universities.
The Texas A&M collection of 24 samples — taken in September from lawns mainly in a neighborhood near Valero Energy Corp.’s refinery — turned up only low traces of petroleum and petrochemical-related compounds.
“As expected the rains washed most things out,” said Texas A&M research leader Anthony Knap.
Rice researchers tested soil at a school and park in Baytown, east across Upper Galveston Bay, where residents said floodwaters rushed in from the 3,400-acre ExxonMobil refinery and chemical plant. They also sampled in Galena Park, a community of 11,000 hemmed in by heavy industry along the ship channel, just east of downtown.
Only one of the nine samples collected by Rice researchers showed elevated levels of petroleum-related toxins, according to an independent chemical analysis funded by the AP-Chronicle collaboration. Collected in Galena Park, it showed the presence of benzo(a)pyrene, a known carcinogen, at levels just above what the EPA deems a cancer risk.
Jessica Chastain lives a block away.
During Harvey’s three-day downpour, the nearby Panther Creek swallowed Chastain’s home, forcing the 36-year-old mother and four of her children to swim across the street to the safety of her parents’ two-story house, through slimy brownish-black water that smelled like a “rotten sewer,” said Chastain. “It had a coat of film over it. I’m not sure what it was. It was probably oil.”
Her children — 15, 11, 9 and 6 — all developed skin infections and strep throat, she said.
Her youngest still “cries when it rains hard,” she said. “‘Is it going to flood?’ he asks.”
The creek, which empties into the nearby ship channel, had backed up from flooded chemical plants and tank farms.
A number of Harvey-related spills occurred near Chastain’s home, including the 460,000-gallon gasoline spill at a Magellan Midstream Partners tank farm and nearly 52,000 pounds of crude oil from a Seaway Crude Pipeline Inc. tank.
Samples taken in October at a Houston park upstream of the ship channel showed elevated levels of dioxins, PCBs and hazardous chemicals typically created in the burning of oil, coal and gas, said Jennifer Horney, an A&M epidemiology professor who conducted testing for the city.
Benzo(a)pyrene was among the chemicals found in sediment on the banks of Brays Bayou at the park, a popular recreation site with baseball diamonds, soccer pitches and bicycle pathways.
“It’s coal tar and it’s a known carcinogen and mostly you find it in industrial settings,” said Horney. “We know the ship channel — or the bayou — was (up) in that park.”
While worrisome, the levels at the park were not high enough to trigger a cleanup under EPA standards, she said. Neither Houston nor Texas A&M officials have publicly released those test results, which the city health department’s chief environmental science officer, Loren Raun, said showed “nothing of concern for human health risk.”
The surface soil scrubbing that scientists believe occurred during Harvey means contaminants likely migrated downstream, said Hanadi Rifai. The head of the University of Houston’s environmental engineering program, she has been studying pollution in the watershed for more than two decades.
“That soil ended up somewhere,” Rifai said. “The net result on Galveston Bay is going to be nothing short of catastrophic.”
-Joint Associated Press and Houston Chronicle Investigation
© 2018 The Canadian Press