Houston Faces Another Threat: Damaged Refineries Spewing Toxic Fumes

“Air pollution is one of the unseen dangers of the storm," a scientist said.

Harris County, Texas, is home to around 4.5 million people and more than 40 percent of the nation’s petrochemical capacity. And thanks to Hurricane Harvey, which is now a tropical storm, it could get pounded with up to 50 inches of rain by the end of this week.

That unprecedented rainfall ― and the flooding that accompanies it ― has forced oil and gas companies in the region to shut down critical infrastructure in the face of a potential environmental catastrophe.

At least 10 refineries on the Texas coast have shut down. And whenever a refinery has to be closed or restarted, especially in emergency situations, its emissions far exceed what’s typically allowed.

“Upsets or sudden shutdowns can release large plumes of sulfur dioxide or toxic chemicals in just a few hours, exposing downwind communities to peak levels of pollution that are much more likely to trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory systems,” a 2012 study by the Environmental Integrity Project found.

The report goes on to note that “The working class and minority populations typical of neighborhoods near refineries and chemical plants bear the brunt of this pollution.”

Dark clouds gather over a refinery near Houston as Hurricane Ike approaches on Sept. 12, 2008.
Dark clouds gather over a refinery near Houston as Hurricane Ike approaches on Sept. 12, 2008.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

Indeed, that lines up with what locals say is happening in the wake of Harvey.

On Sunday, Houston-area resident Stephanie Thomas told Houston Press “something powerful” hit her nostrils, describing the smell “like burnt rubber with a hint of something metallic thrown in.”

Bryan Parras, a nonprofit worker who often visits Manchester, a community that lies near several chemical plants, told the paper he was certain the pollution was affecting him.

“It was weird because I was getting a heartache and a scratchy throat, like the one I get when I take people on toxic tours of Manchester, but I was sitting at home,” Parras said. “The stuff was getting sucked into my house through the window air conditioning units.”

On Monday, officials in the Houston-area cities of La Porte and Shoreacres issued a “shelter in place” order over a chemical leak, urging residents to close windows and doors and turn off air conditioning and ventilation.

The La Porte Office of Emergency Management identified the chemical as anhydrous hydrogen chloride, a colorless gas that turns into a white mist of hydrochloric acid when exposed to moisture in the air. A Dow Chemical safety sheet warns that eye or skin contact causes severe burns, and that inhaling the fumes can be fatal.

Air Alliance Houston estimates that the area’s petrochemical plants will release more than 1 million pounds of air pollution as a result of Harvey.

Exxon Mobil’s Baytown facility, the largest petrochemical complex in the U.S., sustained damage in the storm and has been shut down. Company officials told CNN they’re trying to “minimize emissions,” but according to Exxon Mobil filings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, those emissions are likely to last until Friday.

(In April of this year, a federal judge ordered Exxon Mobil to pay $20 million in fines because the Baytown complex illegally spewed 8 million pounds of hazardous chemicals over a five year period.)

Environment Texas says Baytown is likely emitting chemicals like 1,3-butadiene, benzene and ethylene, all of which can pose a significant health hazard given a large enough exposure.

And people stuck breathing toxic fumes can’t simply go elsewhere. Because of the flooding and other dangers posed by Harvey, they’re effectively stuck where they are.

“Air pollution is one of the unseen dangers of the storm,” stated Dr. Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “Poor air quality puts the most vulnerable among us, like children and seniors, at risk for asthma, heart attacks, strokes and other health problems.”

This story has been updated with information about the “shelter in place” orders in La Porte and Shoreacres.

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