More problems in Texas — Chemical plants start leaking after Harvey

Things are not getting much better in Texas.

Harvey struck Texas with biblical force. Image credits: Brant Kelly.

Everything is bigger in Texas — the cars, the floods, the chemical plants. Unfortunately, the last two make an unfortunate couple. Following the dramatic effects of Hurricane Harvey, at least 25 plants have been completely shut down or at least experienced some kind of technical problem. These problems are not only costing a lot of people a lot of money, but they’re now putting communities at risk.

Air pollution

Since Harvey started taking its toll, refineries and chemical plants have reported more than 2,700 tons (5.4m pounds) of extra air pollution; a figure that’s growing by the hour. This happened due to the direct damage caused by the hurricane, as well as the shutting down process, which causes a spike in the emissions. This led to air pollution rising way above the usual levels (which were already too high), and Texas is experiencing one of its worst smogs in history.

Take the Chevron Phillips Chemical plant in Sweeny, Texas, for instance. Through its shut down alone, it accounted for more than 100,000 pounds of carbon monoxide, 22,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide, 32,000 pounds of ethylene, and 11,000 pounds of propane, according to the to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Another Chevron facility in Cedar Bayou reported comparable figures. But it gets even worse.

According to a report by the Center for Biological Diversity, a cocktail of nearly 1m pounds of particularly harmful substances such as benzene, hexane, sulfur dioxide, butadiene, and xylene have been emitted by over 60 petroleum facilities, most of them operated by ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron.

Worse than ever

Chester awaits evacuation from his ravaged neighborhood near Rockport, Texas. Harvey has hurt humans and animals alike. Image credits: Glenn Fawcett.

Houston is no stranger to bad air quality. Ever since the Clean Air Act was introduced in 1970, Houston never met the national air quality standards. However, this is different — and much worse.

“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 neighbourhoods where storage tanks are adjacent to people’s back yards. It’s a very real threat and it’s a very precarious situation.”

Many people have already reported “unbearable petrochemical smells” for almost a week now, though the TCEQ has not indicated that these leaks can cause significant health hazards. In all truth though, the TCEQ website doesn’t even offer guidance for storm-related emissions.

The real figures might even be higher than this — though they might also be lower. TCEQ Media Relations Manager Andrea Miller told New Republic that companies are likely over-reporting emissions since underestimating them would lead to massive fines. But not everyone is convinced. Daniel Cohan, an air pollution expert at Rice University, said emissions are possibly much higher than what’s being floated around, and this places communities at great risks. In the short run, exposure can cause problems such as muscle weakness, nausea, and gastrointestinal issues. Prolonged exposure to the chemicals heightens the risk of cancer, so this should not be treated lightly.

“The emissions could be many times higher,” he said. “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.”

“It’s concerning how state policies allow enormous amounts of pollution during shut down and start up periods. I hope the next few days are the worst of it.”

The main issue here is the sheer number of plants in Texas. Petrochemical plants are not cars — it’s not as easy as turning a key and restarting them, it’s a complex process. However, the fact that plants were allowed to operate so close to residential areas in the first place also doesn’t help, and Houston’s lack of zoning regulations certainly didn’t help. Perhaps, after the waters calm down in Texas, it would be a good time to revise some of those regulations.

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