A Toxic Storm: Hazardous Facilities, Failed Chemical Safety Policies, and Extreme Weather Leave Houston Residents Swimming in Toxic Soup
In response to the devastation and suffering created by Tropical Storm Harvey, and the toxic hazards posed to health and the environment by dozens of hazardous industrial and commercial facilities concentrated in the Houston area, Michele Roberts, Co-Coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA), issued the following statement:
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families, and all those suffering in Houston and along the Gulf Coast from the impacts of Tropical Storm Harvey. EJHA and our partner, Coming Clean, work closely with affiliates and communities in Houston and throughout the Gulf Coast who have been impacted by this storm, and concern for their health and safety is foremost in our minds.
“Victims of this storm are now facing an unacceptable confluence of environmental injustices—and if past is prologue, they will continue to face overlapping hardships for years to come. Tropical Storm Harvey is now understood to be the most extreme rain event ever recorded in United States history. Undoubtedly, Harvey was made worse by rising sea levels and the increasing prevalence of extreme weather events fueled by global warming pollution. Refineries and petrochemical operations in Houston, almost too numerous to count, have been venting a toxic mix of hazardous air pollutants those trapped by rising floodwaters are forced to breath. The long-term health consequences of this toxic air pollution are unknown. Adding insult to injury, the Trump Administration’s failure to adequately protect communities from hazardous industrial facilities which, under the stress of Harvey, pose an acute risk of explosion or poison gas release. This forces impacted communities to worry about dozens of ‘ticking time bomb’ facilities in their neighborhoods which might cause a catastrophic accident on top of catastrophic flooding. When the waters eventually recede, people will face the challenge of rebuilding, but also the hazards created by flooded toxic waste sites, damaged and leaking chemical storage tanks, and waste escaping from petrochemical manufacturing plants—polluting the water and soil our communities depend on. The concentration of only minimally regulated chemical, oil, and gas facilities in low-lying areas, disproportionately composed of communities of color and low-income communities, combined with increasing extreme weather events due to climate change and an uncaring Administration rolling back chemical safety protections and climate action—is a recipe for health and environmental disaster.
“Sadly, we have seen this situation before, yet we failed to prevent it from happening again. The impacts of Tropical Storm Harvey draw obvious comparison to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Ironically, some ‘internally displaced people’ (climate refugees from within our own borders) who were forced from their homes by Katrina are now facing double jeopardy from Harvey. People of color and the poor, who are more likely to suffer the worst impacts of tropical storms and floods, are now dealing with overlapping damages and losses from a combination of flooding, displacement, air pollution, water and ground contamination, and even exposure to toxic chemicals from building materials used in their homes.
“These dynamics aren’t new to many folks on the ground. Historically, people in these communities have already been dealing with higher rates of exposure to air and water pollution, a higher likelihood of living near hazardous industrial facilities or legacy toxic waste sites, and higher rates of health problems linked to environmental contamination. Unfortunately, no effort or program we are aware of has sought to effectively heal the injuries resulting from the synergistic nature of these multiple impacts, but as we rebuild in the wake of this tragedy, EJHA and Coming Clean will be calling for a just recovery from Harvey.
“We believe, in the months and years to come, that communities who have been impacted by Tropical Storm Harvey have the ‘right to recover’. To this end, we’ll be working for stronger oversight of fossil-fuel and petrochemical companies, chemical storage tanks, and dangerous chemical facilities to reduce the health impacts and risks those most vulnerable among us experience—both before, during and after the storm. We’ll be asking for those responsible for injuries related to their industries to bear their fair share of the burden of recovery—and not simply pass it along to vulnerable members of our society or the general public. We’ll be advocating for national attention to be placed where it’s needed the most—on the most disproportionately impacted communities suffering from this storm. Moving forward, we’ll be pushing for a more just, sustainable, and equitable rebuilding of Houston and the entire Gulf Coast.”
Statements from community members impacted by Tropical Storm Harvey:
Bryan Parras, Organizer with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), said, “In New Orleans, after Katrina, there was a very, very big lesson learned that the issues of injustice intersected so many different ways. These catastrophes and disasters are not just environmental disasters. They are housing disasters. They are access to services disasters. They are immigration issues of injustice. And so many worker injustices—wage theft—I could go on and on. And so we’re trying to keep an eye on all of these very important issues that impact vulnerable and often unheard communities that are exploited in these disasters.
“So Friday night, we were out checking on some of these facilities and many of them were flaring. Later that night, for hours, really, really strong chemical odors were in the air from East Houston all the way to the downtown area. This flaring is a dirty burn, so you can see the black smoke and this adds thousands of pounds of cancer-causing chemicals to the air. There’s a very well-known Superfund site, the San Jacinto Waste Pits, underwater with dioxin. And there was this old legacy pollutants from a paper mill that has sort of just left their toxins in the ground. Eventually, it was flooded—and there it remains. Each time we have a rain event, this contamination is being spread into communities, homes, neighborhoods, and further exposing more and more people.
“We have elevated levels of cancers all along these areas. There have been many reports to show increased rates of childhood leukemia if you live within 2 miles of the Houston Ship Channel, for example. We know that these chemicals are causing cancers and other life-debilitating ailments to the people who live adjacent to them.”
Christine and Delma Bennett, Organizers with Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) in Louisiana, said, “We’ve seen this before. We faced very similar problems when we were impacted by Hurricane Rita. The flooding has clearly overrun refineries and the sewage system in Mossville and along the Gulf Coast. The high water appears to have caused chemical waste—often toxic and persistent substances—to get into the sewage system. This then flows into our rivers, lakes and streams, and in this case sometimes even into our backyards. More focus needs to be put on preventing these toxic chemical disasters because, just like you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, once their chemicals have polluted our soil we end up dealing with it for years to come.”
Make a contribution to support #AjustHarveyRecovery here: https://anothergulf.com/a-just-harvey-recovery/
For more information on toxic hazards in the Houston area, see: http://tejasbarrios.org/
ScienceCorps report on health hazards related to oil fuels in flood waters: http://www.sciencecorps.org/Chemical_Hazards_in_Floods_and_Disasters.pdf