No Need To Worry About Toxic Sludge After Hurricane Harvey. Nobody's Testing For It!
Hey there, little fella!
The Associated Press and the Houston Chronicle teamed up for some pretty unnerving investigative journamalism on the "toxic onslaught from the nation’s petrochemical hub" that was unleashed last August when Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area, flooding all sorts of places you probably wouldn't be too keen on having flooded:
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.
Happily, though, since the flooding and chemical releases took place in the industry-friendly state of Texas, during the industry-fellating administration of Donald J. Trump, nobody has to be overly concerned about the mess left behind when the floodwaters receded, because the aggressive federal and state monitoring of soil, water, and air quality that followed other flooding disasters like Hurricane Ike in 2008 or Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have largely not been a priority. This isn't to say the EPA and the jocularly-named Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have done no monitoring at all; just way less than in prior disasters -- and the testing has largely been "limited to Superfund toxic waste sites," not industrial sites that were flooded. Really, it's a great opportunity for the private sector and for nonprofits to take over a field that government has too long monopolized, isn't it?
During the storm and the subsequent flooding, authorities only warned the public about two major toxic messes. One was the explosions (pardon us, "chemical reaction and overpressure of the container") of chemicals at the Arkema chemical plant, which was hard to ignore what with all the flames and thick black smoke and emergency responders suing for coughing up lungs. The other was a Superfund site full of dioxin that was partially exposed when the protective cap was washed away by the flooded San Jacinto River.
Turns out there were other bad things getting into the air and water during all that flooding! Not that you need to be told about it or anything. Bryan Shaw, who chairs the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, chose not to give an answer when legislators asked him during a January hearing to identify the worst spills and where they were. He said he couldn't release that information until his staff finished a report, you see.
The response to Harvey has been far less burdensome for industry than after other major disasters, according to the AP/Chronicle reporters:
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.
Nothing like that's going on now, although academic researchers are trying to get grants to cover at least some of the data state and federal government isn't bothering to collect.
As we're always saying here, the full story is worth a read, because it offers example after example of nasty stuff that went into the floodwaters or was released into the air, in some cases causing local evacuations or orders to stay indoors. How about a toxic cloud of hydrochloic acid that formed when a pipeline carrying hydrogen chloride gas burst? That one was closed off in a couple of hourse, once responders could find a road that was mostly out of the water.
Or a half-million-gallon gasoline spill from a tank farm, plus another 52,000-pound crude oil spill from another tank nearby? Or the mom whose children had to swim to safety through oil and chemical-filled waters that left all three kids with skin infections and strep throat? The woman, Jessica Chastain, said that now, her youngest kid, aged six, "cries when it rains hard [...] ‘Is it going to flood?’ he asks.”
Still, there's some good-news bad-news about all this: So far, much of the testing of soil and grass in area yards and parks show levels of chemicals that are below what would trigger an EPA-mandated cleanup, probably because the record-setting rains -- as much as five feet of rain in some parts of Houston -- washed away most of the residue down the Houston Ship Channel, the waterway along which most of the petrochemical plants are located. That's actually rather good news for people in Houston, who won't have to take their kids to the playground in HAZMAT suits. Oh, but there is a bit of a downside, too:
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.”
Oh. That may not be so great. But it's all underwater, so nobody has to look at it, and isn't that lucky for state officials who want to get reelected?
If nothing else, the AP/Chronicle story is likely to be just the first in a series that will last for years, all about how the friendliness of state and federal regulators to industry set in motion a slow-motion disaster to follow the hurricane and flooding. But if people don't find out too much about it, and officialdom doesn't have to contend with too much unpleasant data, just think how well the area will be prepared for the next big blow.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.