By: Maia Lemman
Starting as thunderstorms that travel west across Sub Saharan Africa, these weather systems grow in size and magnitude as they move across the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. As the moisture evaporates it rises creating twisting air flows that develop into hurricanes. One such storm developed in the summer of 2017. Harvey was first labeled as a slow-moving tropical storm on August 17th as it made its way towards North America from the Gulf of Mexico. Two days later Harvey was downgraded, only to steadily regain strength until making landfall in Texas as a Category 4 hurricane on August 25th.
As Harvey approached, many Texas counties declared mandatory evacuations, while other towns sandbagged their houses in preparation for the influx of water. Hospitals set up diesel generators to keep them powered during the storm and extra staff members were brought in to manage the expected increase of individuals requiring medical attention. Despite these preparations people caught in the storm’s path were in severe danger. Texas was battered by a deluge of rain that dumped 27 trillion gallons of water in the span of 6 days. Catastrophic flooding, and wind speeds of 130 miles per hour destroyed homes, flooded roads, and claimed 88 lives. In total, NOAA estimates that Harvey incurred $125 billion in damages.
While the rescuers and city officials worked diligently to care for the citizens, chemical plants, oil refineries, and toxic waste sites had not sufficiently prepared for Harvey. Battered by the hurricane, numerous sites poured uncontrolled pollution into the air and water. Oil refineries with damaged equipment could no longer manage their emissions, flaring an estimated one million pounds of pollutants into the air.4 The level of toxic chemicals such as benzene and sulfur dioxide far exceeded the levels permitted by the EPA. When other toxic chemicals were taken into account, the Center for Biological Diversity estimates that close to 5 million pounds of chemical pollutants were poured into the environment. In Houston the level of volatile organic compounds was registered at 15,000 parts per billion. This is ten times higher than deemed safe by health officials.
The environmental damage was not limited to pollution from chemical plants and oil refineries. Texas is home to 53 superfund sites. These are sites which the federal government has deemed toxic and pays to cleanup. The EPA reported that 13 Superfund sites were flooded during Hurricane Harvey. To the dismay of those living near these sites, the EPA failed to assess the potential spread of the toxic pollutants from these sites in the days following the flooding.
The chemical plant that received the most attention was the Arkema plant in Crosby Texas. This chemical plant houses 19.5 tons of volatile chemicals that depend upon refrigeration to remain stable and prevent combustion. However, as Harvey knocked out electricity, and then Arkema’s backup generators, the plant lost power and burst into flames releasing a plume of toxic chemicals. While the EPA maintained the stance that there were no threats from the toxicity, local officials suggested a 1.5-mile evacuation radius around the plant. Two hundred people living within the radius to the plant were evacuated, and twenty-one individuals required medical attention.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, attention has been focused on the operations of these polluting industries. Dozens of civil suits were filed against Arkema, and additionally in August of 2018 the attorney general brought criminal charges against the chemical manufacturer and two of the leaders of Arkema.8 Besides the fight to determine who should be held responsible for these pollutants there has been a push to ensure that toxic industries take preventive measures against potential damage from future natural disasters. With hurricanes are occurring at larger magnitudes and battering the southeast U.S. where many of these polluting industries are located, it seems logical that they should develop comprehensive contingency plans, insure their machinery is operational and assess whether their site is within a flood plain. Furthermore, the EPA should be assisting in assessing damagers and enforcing emission controls after a storm. While people struggle to recover from the storm, they should not also be assaulted by plumes of toxic air pollution that will damage their health.