Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, made landfall in Texas on August 25. The historic storm devastated the Gulf Coast region, including Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States. The devastating toll of the storm includes at least 63 deaths at last count, billions in damaged property, and emotional strain as residents and officials begin to assess the damage. Rain accumulation peaked at 52 inches in some areas, flooding freeways, neighborhoods, and hundreds of industrial sites located in the path of the storm.

As the storm began to subside, the environmental impacts of Harvey in a region dominated by energy and petrochemical industries were among the immediate concerns of the public. As the floodwaters recede, state and local officials, the EPA, and others are beginning to fully assess the impacts. The Environmental Defense Fund released an early estimate of one million pounds of pollution associated with Hurricane Harvey.

The actual value is likely much higher, but accurate calculations may be hard to obtain since the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) turned off its air quality monitors to avoid storm damage. Many of these emissions were the consequence of necessary plant shutdowns. Plants’ pollution control mechanisms are less effective in the shutdown process. At least 14 oil refineries had to shut down during the storm, translating to 17.6 percent of the United States’ total gasoline refining capacity. The shortages in the Gulf have had a ripple effect, causing supply shortages in states beyond the region.

The Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, attracted national attention in the wake of the storm when chemical fires erupted there. The plant processes organic peroxide, a key component in plastics manufacturing that is thermally unstable and highly flammable. On August 31, flooding caused the plant’s backup generator to fail, stopping the refrigeration of tons of organic peroxide. One-third of the plant’s containers of organic peroxide ignited, causing explosions and black smoke. Residents within a 1.5 mile radius of the plant were evacuated. On September 3, local firefighters destroyed the remaining organic peroxide through a “controlled burn.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted air quality tests that determined the air outside the plant was safe to breathe and there would be no long-term effects.

The Arkema facility was not the only industrial casualty of the storm. Across the Gulf Coast of Texas, chemical plants and oil refineries reported leaks, spills, and emissions events to the TCEQ. The TCEQ has so far approved $239,995 in penalties for 27 violations of environmental regulations.

At this point, uncertainty still surrounds the fate of Superfund sites in the region (Superfund sites are heavily polluted areas undergoing long-term decontamination). The TCEQ announced on September 2 that of the 41 Superfund sites located in storm-impacted areas, 28 were exempt from any detectable damage. However, only two of the thirteen flooded sites had been secured by response personnel at that time. Since then the EPA has conducted initial assessments at all sites and announced the need for further assessments at the San Jacinto Waste Pits and the U.S. Oil Recovery Site.

The greatest environmental threat associated with the storm might come from a less obvious source: private property damage. Hurricane Harvey flooded approximately 100,000 Texas homes as well as cars and other structures. The floodwaters contain a confluence of sewage, motor oil, and various household chemicals, representing an array of toxic and bacterial risks. Public health officials advised everyone to avoid direct contact with the floodwaters as much as possible.

As the flooding subsides, drinking water quality continues to be an urgent health concern. On September 6, 168 water systems were on boil-water notice and 50 were shut down completely. The entire city of Beaumont, Texas, was without tap water until September 4, and remains on boil-water notice. Hundreds of thousands of families in the region depend on well water. Residential wells that flooded in the storm must now be disinfected. Well cleanup is the responsibility of private owners, although the TCEQ offers water testing and guidelines.

Relief organizations have provided food to flood victims, and the federal government extended Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) benefits for Texans to include hot and prepared foods. Beyond flooded grocery stores, Harvey impacted the entire Texas food system. Texas is not only an industrial center, but also an important region for agriculture. Hurricane Harvey halted exports of the state’s commodity crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. Parts of the Cotton Belt in Texas were devastated by the storm, with valuable crops ruined just before harvest. Altogether, the South Texas Cotton and Grain Association estimates $150 million in crop losses due to Hurricane Harvey. Livestock, like people, were displaced by the floodwaters. Approximately 1.2 million beef cows were kept in the 54 counties declared disaster areas. Fortunately, most of them were herded to higher ground.

These are just the immediately-known impacts of Hurricane Harvey. It will take time to understand the full effect of this unprecedented storm and recover from it. On September 5, the U.S. House of Representatives, with the express support of the President, passed a $7.85 billion relief package for Hurricane Harvey, through FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund and the Small Business Administration’s Disaster Loans Program Account. The Senate passed a $15.25 billion hurricane relief package, by 80 to 17, on September 7. In addition to the funding provided by the House, it includes $7.4 billion in Community Development Block Grants.


Author: Beatrix Scolari