Recent Reports Show the Extent of the Environmental Impact of Hurricane Harvey
Over the past few weeks, a series of devastating storms have battered the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Eastern Coast of the United States. Hurricane Harvey, followed shortly by Hurricanes Irma and Jose, have claimed the lives of at least 100 people so far and are estimated to have caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage to local communities and infrastructure. Hurricanes Irma and Jose made landfall as Category 4 and 5 storms, respectively, sending massive amounts of rain and extraordinarily high winds that devastated the Gulf Coast of Texas and the Caribbean. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in southeast Texas with 130 mph winds and brought between 45 and 60 inches of rain throughout the region. Although Hurricane Jose remained off the coast of the Leeward Islands and Puerto Rico, it sent rain, winds, and high waves that disrupted relief efforts in many of the already-battered Caribbean Islands.
While damage to property and infrastructure has been extensive and will likely require months of relief work, the extent of the environmental damage caused by these hurricanes is just beginning to be uncovered. Hurricane Harvey, in particular, made landfall near Corpus Christi, Texas, an area dotted with numerous oil refineries and petrochemical manufacturing plants. According to a report by the Center for Biological Diversity, high winds and severe flooding caused the release of hazardous waste in at least 13 Superfund sites, such as the Highlands Acid Pit, a disposal site for spent sulfuric acid sludge from oil and gas refining processes. In addition, the EPA has issued warnings to local residents and relief workers regarding potential hazardous chemicals and bacteria present in floodwaters around the state.
In addition to the extensive damage caused by flooding, many major oil refineries and chemical plants released massive quantities of toxic air pollutants during shutdown and startup procedures. As of August 31, the Center for Biological Diversity has reported the release of 5.46 million pounds of air pollutants from oil and gas facilities. Of the 5.46 million pounds of air pollutants emitted, nearly 1 million pounds consisted of toxic chemicals documented to cause serious harm to human health, including hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, hexane, benzene, toluene and xylene.
The effects of the massive release of air pollutants during shutdown and startup procedures by chemical plants and oil refineries are already being felt around the state. After an air-quality monitor in southwest Houston measured 201 parts per billion of ozone pollution, the Houston Health Department released a statement urging children and people with lung diseases to restrain from strenuous outdoor activity due to poor air quality. Interestingly, this dangerously high reading, which exceeds the level considered to be extremely unhealthy by the EPA, comes at a time when fewer cars are on the road. According to an analysis of commercial driving activity provided by the Houston Health Department, there was an 88% reduction in driving activity following Hurricane Harvey. This means that the majority of elevated smog readings, which were the highest since October of 2003, were caused by the emission of air pollutants from sources other than cars, such as oil refineries and chemical manufacturing plants.
While the full extent of the environmental damage caused by the recent hurricanes has yet to be uncovered, the magnitude of the damage in Texas alone foreshadows a long and arduous recovery for all areas affected. The California Environmental Lawyers at Bick Law LLP will continue to monitor the environmental impacts and cleanup efforts as a result of the recent storms.