Analyzing the 5.5 Million Pounds of Air Pollutants Released in Texas After Harvey

Floodwater left in the wake of Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey begins to recede in an industrial area on August 31, 2017 near Houston, Texas. The South Texas coast where Harvey hit ... is just littered with hundreds of fossil fuel and industrial facilities that store large amounts of dangerous chemicals, says climate scientist Shaye Wolf. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)Floodwater left in the wake of Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey begins to recede in an industrial area on August 31, 2017, near Houston, Texas. “The South Texas coast where Harvey hit … is just littered with hundreds of fossil fuel and industrial facilities that store large amounts of dangerous chemicals,” says climate scientist Shaye Wolf. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Janine Jackson: The story of devastating weather events like hurricanes is many stories, really. There’s no need to compete; they’re all critical. But there is something about the oil industry spurring climate disruption, lobbying against preventative or preparatory measures, and then adding to its harmful impact with their methods of operation. As Texas continues to reel under the effects of Harvey, it’s been noted that besides massive flooding, some communities were also faced with dangerous chemicals released into the air by refineries and petrochemical plants.

How did that happen, and what can prevent it from happening again? Our next guest has been investigating that. Shaye Wolf is climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity. She joins us now by phone from Oakland. Welcome to CounterSpin, Shaye Wolf.

Shaye Wolf: Thank you for having me.

Most of us are not scientists, of course, but we do understand that not every multisyllable word is dangerous. So it isn’t just that “chemicals” were released in South Texas; it really matters what those chemicals were. Fill us in on what your analysis found. What were the emissions, and what caused them to be released?

The South Texas coast where Harvey hit, just to kind of set the context, is just littered with hundreds of fossil fuel and industrial facilities that store large amounts of dangerous chemicals. We looked at the amounts of air pollutants that refineries and petrochemical plants in South Texas reported releasing, either during Harvey or after Harvey, into surrounding communities, and it was a staggering amount. Our analysis, which was as of August 31, and the number has only grown — we totaled more than 5-and-a-half million pounds of air pollutants.

And of that, we looked at seven particularly dangerous chemicals that were released to the air, all of which are documented to have serious health impacts, and some that cause cancer. And we totaled almost a million pounds of those seven particularly dangerous chemicals. So those are things like benzene and butadiene, which are carcinogens, cancer-causing chemicals. And we also included sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Those are chemicals that really cause a lot of respiratory irritation. So you’ve heard reports of people complaining about difficulty breathing, or burning eyes, burning lungs, in the Houston area. And that’s very concerning, because these are communities living in some of the worst air conditions in the country, because of all of these facilities, and then during storms, they get hit with an extra load of toxins. And that’s just not fair; these communities shouldn’t be having to live with this toxic burden.

What happened at the refineries and plants that caused these chemicals to be released?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. There are several sources. Some of the chemicals were released because of leaks due to storm damage. So there were six facilities that reported that the roofs on their tanks that are holding chemicals failed during the storm, and released toxins onto the roof, and a lot of those escaped into the air. So things like benzene, that carcinogen.

Many of the chemicals came from routine industry practice during storms. When they do quick shutdowns, either before or in some cases during the actual storm — which is dangerous for workers, having to go out and do the shutdown during Harvey — the industry uses flaring and these pressure release valves that release a lot of the toxins to the air. And the problem is that’s allowed. There are pollution-control technologies that should and could be implemented on these facilities to reduce the toxic burden during the shutdown, and then the startup of the plants during storms.

Let me just ask you: The media coverage that we’ve seen on this issue seems to be overwhelmingly focused on one company, on Arkema, where emergency workers had to move things around, and were made ill. But even when those stories were good, and some were, they kind of suggested that this company was an outlier, or maybe even unique. But you seem to be saying that these sorts of problems are really not confined to Arkema.

Oh, absolutely not. I mean, Arkema was very dramatic because of the explosions that were very dangerous. But in our analysis, those 5.5 million pounds of air pollutants — and growing; there are many more now as companies continue to report — that came from 40 facilities, so 40 refineries or petrochemical plants. And there are many more now that are reporting, so it’s a widespread problem.

I have read industry officials describe the situation during Harvey as “unprecedented,” and Arkema officials said, “We’ve never experienced anything that would have given us any indication that we could have that much water.” You note, though, that they certainly had ample warning of hurricane risk, so what’s the disconnect there? Are they asking us to accept “unprecedented” as meaning the same thing as “unpredictable”? What’s going on?

I think that statement is a real problem, because we know that the Gulf Coast is very vulnerable to hurricanes and major storms that can cause damage to these petrochemical plants and refineries. And we also know that climate change, climate disruption, is intensifying the power of these storms. So the fossil fuel industry is inherently unsafe to public health and to our climate, and then climate change is just making these facilities even more dangerous, because the damage from storms can be more intense. This is a problem that’s not going to go away; it’s just getting worse as climate disruption increases.

There seems to be a problem with, also, the status of just access, public access, to information. Matt Dempsey from the Houston Chronicle has spoken about the difficulty he had getting a chemical inventory out of Arkema. And apparently these companies can use the threat of terrorism, of terrorists learning what these chemicals are, as a way to defeat or get around the public’s right to know. How are you able to get what information you can get?

I think you’ve identified a really critical problem, and that is, in its short time in office, the Trump administration has really increased community vulnerability to the pollution from fossil fuel industries during storms like Harvey, and it’s done that in a number of ways. And one way is that there have been several rollbacks of really important public safety protections, right-to-know protections.

And one big mistake that the Trump administration made was to delay the implementation of a chemical safety rule that required companies to make information about the dangerous chemicals at their plants more easily accessible to the public, and also that increased the enforcement of company safety plans in worst-case scenarios like we saw at Arkema. And even though that rule wouldn’t have in itself prevented that explosion in Crosby from happening, it would have given the public and first responders better information about what was going into the air, and what the risks were.

So it is very disturbing and troubling that the Trump administration has delayed the implementation of this right-to-know, really important public safety rule. Our information, from some reporting that chemical companies are doing — the rules have been suspended and relaxed on reporting during and after Harvey, which is a problem, but some companies are reporting. So once again, our numbers are probably a vast underestimate of what’s actually going into the air.

And another thing that was very worrisome is what’s going into the water. We have seen initial reports of companies reporting wastewater outflows and overflows, sometimes onto the ground. One company reported wastewater flowing into San Jacinto River. So these are wastewater from refineries and petrochemical companies. They’re most of the time not reporting how much and what’s in the water, but some companies have reported 100,000 gallons, 350,000 gallons of wastewater flowing out of their facilities. And that’s tremendously disturbing, because as we know, a lot of communities are dealing with homes that have been soaked in flood water, and there could be a problem with dangerous chemicals getting into the flood waters that have soaked their homes and their communities.

I just saw a story in which an official was saying, yeah, don’t let your children play in the flood water. You know, don’t let them touch it. And if they touch it, then wash them off. It just seems not tenable, really.

It’s very frightening to know that your neighborhood has been soaked in water, and in many places the flood water still surrounding your home, that could be dangerous, not only from the petrochemical facilities and refineries, but also from all of the Superfund sites that have toxic chemicals, that have been flooded. And there’s been a lot of reporting on 13 flooded Superfund sites in the Houston area, Corpus Christi area, that may have damage, where chemicals can be leaking out. And that’s really scary for the communities around those sites. I saw some reporting this morning of globs of mercury washing up in Houston, and they’re not sure where those globs of mercury are coming from, so —

Wow, wow. You get the sense from media that there is a problem, but that the problem is that these companies didn’t submit to the regulatory system as it currently exists, where the implication is that would have prevented this. A New York Times story talked about how this is going to “bring fresh scrutiny on whether these plants are adequately regulated.” Is it your sense that we have all the necessary rules in place, and they just need to be followed, or they just need to be enforced?

No, I think there’s a multifold problem. And one is that the fossil fuel industry is exempt from the provisions of many of our foundational environmental laws. So just to give you an example, there’s an Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act that required industrial facilities to report big releases of toxins, so that the community can know, and the oil and gas industry is largely exempt from that requirement. So that has to change. The oil and gas industry should not have exemptions from protections provided by environmental laws.

So in some cases, many cases, the rules and regulations aren’t sufficient, need to be stronger, and in other cases, there is not proper enforcement. So we already know that under the Trump administration, there have been tremendous cuts of staffing and funding for environmental protection agencies like the EPA or OSHA. And so we have agencies with the mission of helping protect Americans from toxic pollutants, and their staff and budgets are being cut, and the enforcement then isn’t there.

So we know, for example, during Harvey that a lot of the air quality-monitoring devices were turned off. So during the most intensive part of when pollutants are being put into the air, we don’t have a lot of independent verification of what went into the air, beyond what the chemical companies are self-reporting. And then we need a lot of comprehensive monitoring on the ground of what went into the air, the water, the soil, so we can comprehensively clean up communities. And then we need more prevention in the future, so these things don’t happen again. And it’s worrisome, that is not happening on the level, at the scale that it should be.

Finally, we still have those talking about the “climate change agenda.” But in large part, media have moved; they acknowledge that human-driven climate disruption is real, and they’re reporting the impacts — in the United States, anyway. But this never-ending call for “fresh scrutiny” makes me nuts. At some point, I guess we have to ask whether a journalist’s job is satisfied by simply narrating destruction, or are they charged with really naming the causes and naming the ways toward solutions?

Yes, and I think that’s really important: setting a different vision, laying out what this really looks like in practice on the ground. And then it has to be, we need to make change on a more rapid scale. We know from all of the hundreds of thousands of scientific studies, and what we’re seeing just with our own eyes, that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to phase out fossil fuels very quickly. And we need to phase in clean energy, from rooftop solar and wind, that creates clean, good jobs, and it protects our climate and protects people and the environment.

And having more recognition of what that looks like in practice, and the absolute need for that — it could not be a more critical point to be talking about, over and over again, because this is our future. This is our present, our present and our future. What’s happening now with the storms, and other climate change-related damage, is unacceptable, it’s just getting worse, and there couldn’t be a more critical issue to be talking about with our friends, with our neighbors, in the media, with our colleagues, all the time.

We’ve been speaking with Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity. They’re on line at Shaye Wolf, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.