SEP 04, 2017 6:57 AM PDT

What are the most urgent post-Harvey concerns?

The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey has been perhaps even scarier for residents than the flooding itself: petrochemical plants that have been inundated with water are leaking thousands of tons of pollutants and several have even exploded from chemical fires. The communities living near plants now face not only damage to their homes from the flooding but also dangerous levels of toxic fumes and potential water contamination.

The Center for Biological Diversity has reported that nearly 1 million pounds of dangerous toxins such as benzene, hexane, sulfur dioxide, butadiene, and xylene have been emitted in the last week from over 60 petroleum industry plants operated by ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and other businesses. Ozone levels are reportedly through the roof, soaring 3 times higher than the national standard.

“It’s a really serious public health crisis from the pollution and other impacts people are facing,” said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “Communities in close proximity to these facilities will get the worst of it, as they get the worst of it on a daily basis. There’s also the acute danger of one of these facilities exploding in neighborhoods where storage tanks are adjacent to people’s back yards. It’s a very real threat and it’s a very precarious situation.”

These chemicals have been known to increase the risk of cancer, gastrointestinal ailments, nausea, muscle weakness, and respiratory issues. Residents are already complaining about poor air quality, saying that even just breathing literally hurts.

Because various air quality monitors were damaged in the storm, monitoring air pollution is even more difficult. “The emissions could be many times higher,” said Daniel Cohan, an air pollution expert at Rice University. “A lot of the risks for carcinogens and neurotoxins come following exposure for a long time but the immediate concern is that people in the neighborhoods around the plants, a lot of low-income Hispanic communities, will suffer itchy eyes and throat complaints. The air will be unpleasant to breathe.

In addition to released pollutants, explosions at several petrochemical sites, in particular, Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, have residents even more on edge. Chemicals at the plant require refrigeration in order to maintain chemical stability; when the plant’s generators broke down in the storm, the chemicals were left without such refrigeration and caught fire.

Smoke coming from the Arkema chemical plant. Credit Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Other plants operated by the oil industry have also shut down, releasing pollutants in their midst. The closure of two ExxonMobil facilities released more than 12,500lbs of chemicals including benzene and xylene; Shell and Dow Chemical plants have also admitted to having wastewater overflows.

And just to add more concern, the Associated Press reported five Houston-area Superfund sites have been flooded as well. Scientists and health officials are concerned that these contaminated sites may spread other dangerous toxins.

Sources: The Guardian, NY Times, The Washington Post, CNN

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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