Some of the major fallout from Hurricane Harvey started a few days before the storm made landfall, and it’s still going on a week later, but we may never know the extent of it.
The patch of the Gulf Coast that Harvey hit the hardest is home to a significant chunk of the U.S. petrochemical industry, and in the days leading up to the storm, plants shut down across the region. So, too, did the state and federal equipment used to monitor emissions from those facilities, leaving us with just the companies’ own reports to assess the effects.
As plants shut down, they burn off huge amounts of chemicals in a process known as flaring, which involves burning off excess gases that can’t be reused or recycled.
And in the lead-up to Harvey, refineries along the Gulf Coast burned off a lot of chemicals: Chevron’s Baytown plant alone flared 766,000 pounds of various chemicals including carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and benzene — a known carcinogen — according its own filing with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. And at least 25 other plants along the Texas coast shut down, according to petrochemical industry website ICIS. As they did, they released over a million pounds of pollution into the atmosphere, according to Air Quality Houston, a local nonprofit that added up the companies’ self-reported numbers from TCEQ filings.
We’ll have to be satisfied with the numbers the refineries themselves are reporting. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality confirmed to the New Republic on Monday that most of the devices they use to measure the public’s exposure to toxic air pollutants from plants were either removed or disabled to prevent them being damaged in the storm. And while the rain likely mitigated the spread of the chemical plumes, it will be hard to measure the effects of these flares on the local community or on first responders.
And even the sensors that were in place might not have been enough to measure the fallout from Harvey, had they been turned on.
“The EPA and state air monitors are regional monitors or fence-line monitors — that is, they’re at the fence, where there might be community exposure,” Dr. Thomas Burke, a former EPA science adviser and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told VICE News. They’re designed to gauge the potential community exposure to pollutants under normal circumstances — they might not be effective in a case like this one.
In 2005, Katrina put refineries underwater and spilled millions of gallons of oil into floodwaters. But then, too, researchers at the National Academy of Engineers note, “The data are relatively sparse, however, and therefore may not fully characterize localized problems”
“The other impact is what happens to the water onsite,” Burke said. “Is there an immediate impact of refinery waste or petroleum products in floodwater that jeopardizes first responders and the community?”
Those fence-line devices certainly wouldn’t be monitoring wastewater coming out of plants — and it’s not clear to what extent that water, and, therefore, its effect on community members, will be monitored. The EPA on Monday told the Washington Post that “TCEQ and EPA will be inspecting sites in the affected areas once reentry is possible.” But on Monday, Houstonians were already wading through that water.
“EPA continues to support TCEQ in contacting drinking water and wastewater systems and will visit two systems based on information garnered,” David Gray, acting EPA regional director in Region 6, told VICE News in an email Wednesday afternoon. “In addition, EPA’s aerial assessment aircraft will conduct aerial reconnaissance over the impacted area, as weather permits.”
And just as flaring burns enormous amounts of chemicals as plants shut down, refineries are expected to pollute heavily as the plants start back up again.
“Most of the unauthorized emissions come from the process of shutting down, and then starting up, the various units of the plant, when pollution-control devices can’t be operated properly and there’s lots of flaring,” said Luke Metzger, director of the group Environment Texas, told the Washington Post.
An ExxonMobil facility — the second-largest refinery in the country — also in Baytown, a predominantly Latino community where nearly 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, is releasing unusually high emissions due to the heavy rain, the company acknowledged Tuesday. There have been repeated reports of “rancid” chemical smells posted on social media by residents in the area.
And there were two explosions at another petrochemical facility, where backup refrigeration systems failed as the result of the over 40 inches of floodwater surrounding the plant, according to ICIS. Authorities have evacuated residents in a 1.5-mile radius around the facility.
The largest refinery in the country, the Port Arthur plant, also shut down due to the storm. The city of Port Arthur’s mayor says the whole city is underwater.