After the heavy rains hit Houston, eight area plants shut down, triggering a dangerous pulse of 1.3 million pounds of unpermitted air pollution. Photo: Karl Spencer.

Industry’s delay only made Harvey's air pollution worse

August 16th, 2018

After the heavy rains hit Houston, eight area plants shut down, triggering a dangerous pulse of 1.3 million pounds of unpermitted air pollution. Photo: Karl Spencer.

While petrochemical plants farther south on the Texas coast minimized their pollution by shutting down pre-emptively as Hurricane Harvey approached, industries in the Houston region waited more than three days after the governor’s August 23 disaster declaration before shutting down for safety reasons.

Then, after the heavy rains hit the Houston area on August 26, eight area plants shut down within 24 hours, triggering a dangerous pulse of 1.3 million pounds of unpermitted air pollution – much of it caused by flooding-driven emergencies, equipment failures, and electrical outages, according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General recently launched an investigation of EPA and Texas’ monitoring of air pollution during and after the storm, including communications to the public. The new EIP report uses records from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to analyze these pollution releases and the response to them by government and industry.

“During the storm, state and federal officials provided overly broad statements about pollution levels, repeatedly reassuring people that they had no reason to worry,” said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “This was despite the fact that 75 percent of the air pollution monitors had been shut down in advance of the storm, and there were known hotspots of cancer-causing benzene in southeast Houston. This cannot happen during the next storm.”

Ilan Levin, Texas director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said, “As we head toward the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, it’s critical that we learn from the man-made environmental disasters that followed the storm and improve the storm-readiness of our pollution control systems for the future. Because with climate change, it’s not if but when the next major flood will strike.”

The report, “Preparing for the Next Storm,” uses state and federal records and data on air and water pollution releases. The air emission numbers are for unpermitted pollution self-reported by companies during industrial accidents, startups, shutdowns and maintenance above and beyond the amounts that their state air pollution control permits allow. The report’s findings include:

In the Corpus Christi area, on August 24, the day after Gov. Abbott declared a “State of Disaster,” industry minimized air pollution releases by proactively shutting plants before the rain even started falling.

By contrast, in the Houston region, industries waited for more than three days until heavy rains started falling before taking action to shut down, and then suffered larger pollution releases because of flooding and blackouts.

In the 48 hours after the heavy rainfall started in the Houston area, a total of 23 incidents were reported to the state that released 2.2 million pounds of pollution.

All five of the largest industrial air pollution releases during the storm were in the Houston area, with the worst being at Magellan Galena Park Terminal, which released 2,472,402 pounds of air pollution.

In total across the state, Hurricane Harvey triggered the release of at least 8.3 million pounds of unpermitted air pollution from petrochemical plants.

During the hurricane, seven industrial plants on the Texas coast reported that electrical outages triggered accidents and shutdowns that released at least 255,598 pounds of air pollution. These blackout-related incidents included a fire and series of explosions at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby that sickened several rescue workers and forced an evacuation; as well as a release of pollutants from the Total Petrochemicals Refinery in Port Arthur.

In the nine months after the storm, 18 petrochemical plants in Texas revised their air pollution reports to the state to erase 1.7 million pounds of reported emissions triggered by Harvey, arguing that such pollution was actually allowed by their state permits. This change was legally questionable, because – under the state’s permit program – such reclassification of “startup, shutdown and maintenance” emissions should only be allowed for planned shutdowns and maintenance, not storms and other accidents.

Sewage plants and industries in coastal Texas released more than 150 million gallons of wastewater because of the storm. But that figure represents significant underreporting, because at least 24 percent of facilities that reported overflows entered “zero” as the quantity of their pollution – even though the text of their reports often suggest large amounts of were released.

At least 15 floating roofs on storage tanks failed during the storm, releasing more than 3.1 million pounds of air and water pollution.

As Hurricane Harvey approached, about 75 percent of the stationary air monitoring equipment in the Houston, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont-Port Arthur areas was temporarily shut down by state and federal agencies and companies, although these heavily industrialized areas are home to many of the largest sources of air pollution in the United States.

The report provides a detailed timeline of industrial plant shutdowns after the governor’s warning as the heavy rains hit; state and industry data and maps of all the top air and water pollution sources reported during the storm in the Houston area, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont-Port Arthur; and a breakdown of types of pollution released and causes of industrial failures during the storm.

The analysis also concludes with recommendations for improving safety and reducing storm-related pollution in the future, including:

  1. As the lead state agency for environmental emergency response, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) should plan, coordinate, and stagger the often complicated shutdowns of major industrial facilities during hurricanes and other disasters, as well as the subsequent restarting of plants, to minimize pollution impacts to nearby communities.
  2. Refineries and other petrochemical plants need to better prepare in advance of future hurricanes to minimize their pollution releases and the equipment failures caused by storms, such as power outages. Companies need to invest in more robust backup electrical generation systems.
  3. The state needs to be better prepared to monitor air pollution during and immediately after natural disasters. The air quality impacts from the pollution that was released during and after Hurricane Harvey are not fully known, because the region’s air monitoring stations were shut down ahead of the storm. While there may be good reason to shutter some expensive equipment to protect it from damage, the state also has an obligation to protect public health during and after a disaster. The state should invest in mobile air monitoring units and create a surveillance plan to seek out and detect pollution hot spots.
  4. With more intense storms and greater unpredictability forecast along the Texas coast due to climate change, it is imperative that refineries and petrochemical plants invest more in the best available pollution controls. This includes making industrial storage tanks safer and more resilient, including those with floating roofs that frequently failed during Hurricane Harvey.
  5. The state should not suspend pollution reporting requirements during future natural disasters – as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott did for nearly eight months after Harvey – nor should the state allow industrial plants to retract pollution reports based on disaster declarations or questionable interpretations of the state permits. Candid and transparent reporting is necessary to understand the public health impacts of air pollution releases.
  6. Wastewater treatment plants should consider taking precautionary steps to deal with future floods, including by building more protective walls and levees, moving to higher ground and green solutions such as integrating treatment areas with artificial wetlands.

“Hurricane Harvey was more than a historic flooding event. The aftermath was in large part a man-made environmental disaster,” Levin said. “We have an obligation to protect communities next door to chemical plants and refineries that suffer the worst public health consequences of storm-related pollution.”

Tresaugue is the senior communications manager for the Environmental Defense Fund.


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