Wednesday, January 24, 2018

After Harvey, communities near Texas’ biggest polluters are even more vulnerable

Most of Texas’ toxic sites are located in counties hit by Hurricane Harvey. As a changing climate brings storms that are more frequent and severe, communities around these sites are grappling with the area’s “toxic legacy.”

By Dani Neuharth-Keusch

When Hurricane Harvey brought category 5 winds and more than 50 inches of rainfall to some parts of Harris County, environmental advocates braced for the disaster they had known for years would come: a major hurricane barreling down through the Houston ship channel — a 16-mile industrial landscape, littered with refineries and plants whose processes involve toxic and volatile chemicals.

“Hurricane Harvey is ongoing,” said Deyadira Arellano, campaign organizer and community health worker for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. She said for the communities around the ship channel, who are living with Houston’s toxic legacy every day, the storm stirred up even more danger.

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Texas’ 8,704 industrial polluters and Superfund sites are highly concentrated in areas within Hurricane Harvey’s impact zone. Overall, 59% of Texas’ toxic sites are located in counties that received FEMA aid after Hurricane Harvey — double the statewide average, at 26 per zip code.

The EPA issues an annual report of all industrial facilities that logged unauthorized toxic chemical emissions that year. While complete data is still unavailable for Hurricane Harvey’s immediate aftermath, initial reports showed significant toxic releases.

While some of those incidents were due to damage or malfunction caused by the storm — like the explosion at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, and the Valero Energy refinery spill — most occured because refineries and chemical plants pre-emptively shut down during extreme weather events. When plants suspend operations, they emit all the chemicals currently being processed. Resuming operations after a shutdown also carries extra emissions.

Leaks from Superfund sites — the most toxic, concentrated pollution sites in the U.S. — are tracked separately. There are 43 total Superfund sites in the Harvey impact zone. Most have been cleared of damage caused by the storm, but the San Jacinto Waste Pits site near Houston “requires additional follow up,” according to the EPA.

The site contains dioxins and other known cancer-causing chemicals, which Hurricane Harvey exposed to floodwaters that could allow them to seep into sediments in surrounding neighborhoods.

“San Jacinto Waste Pits is known as one of the most toxic sites,” Yvette Arellano, research and policy liaison for TEJAS, said. The site was capped with cement, the procedure for when a superfund site cannot be remediated for reuse. But those caps are known to not withstand extreme weather events.

“There is no 100% foolproof way of remediating a toxic site,” she said.

All 16 superfund sites in the Houston area flooded after Hurricane Harvey. But Arellano said EPA officials did not show up to assess the damage until after much of the water had receded.

The Many Diversified Interests, Inc. site in Houston’s Fifth Ward has been on the Superfund list for nearly two decades — and according to 2000 Census data, the population living within a half-mile of the site was 98.9% minority, the EPA said.

“The Fifth Ward, like many parts of Houston, are prone to flooding, so when it rains it floods,” Yvette Arellano said. “That carries toxins … back into the public.”

According to a report from advocacy group Environment Texas, one in four people in the U.S. live within 3 miles of a superfund site. The group’s director, Luke Metzger, said the Trump administration plans to cut Superfund funding by one-third.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is looking to the private sector for solutions, which Arellano said makes the process of cleaning up these sites even more dangerous for frontline communities.

“Right now under this current administration, we’re fighting environmental rollback,” she said. “How are we supposed to hold folks accountable and push the EPA forward with cleanup when there is no EPA there?”

In the meantime, while communities wait for cleanup, residents — including children — are being exposed to disease-causing chemicals. Superfund sites can take seven to 11 years or more to be fully remediated.

“People don’t have time for that process to go through,” Arellano said. “You’re talking about living seven years near a contaminated site. The issue is, sites like the MDI site have contaminants in them that cause hormone disruption, issues with learning disabilities, renal failure. It’s not an acute sort of exposure, it’s chronic. ... It could be generations until the impacts of these chemicals are passed on within children.”

Even when these sites are cleaned up, people are often displaced to contaminated areas elsewhere.

“When communities get remediation, then they get redeveloped and they become hubs of gentrification,” she added. “For areas that have had to live near these legacy contamination sites and have received no resources … when they’re cleaned up, all of a sudden they’re getting displaced.”

According to Deyadira Arellano, it’s not just land developers who are pushing people out — so are the oil and petrochemical companies. She referenced a rapidly shrinking, mostly Latino community near the Chevron-Phillips refinery in Baytown, Texas, east of Houston off Interstate 10.

“There are only about five residents left in this little enclave,” she said. “All of them had mostly sold [their homes].”

The area received at least 20 inches of water after Hurricane Harvey. According to Arellano, as residents worked to rebuild and renovate their homes after the damage, Chevron-Phillips was purchasing damaged properties.

“What we see is the refineries taking advantage of the fact that those communities were inundated and buying up the properties under value for their own expansion projects,” she said.

Yvette Arellano said most of the frontline communities near these sites are vulnerable in multiple ways: They are often working-class, majority-minority neighborhoods that lack access to healthcare and nutritious food.

But these residents are not just socioeconomically vulnerable — they are also facing immediate consequences of a changing climate, and the increasingly frequent and severe weather events that come with it.

“I have yet to come across a community member that is a Climate denier,” Yvette Arellano said. “And that’s because... climate change and the issues of climate change are not an issue of the future. They’re happening now. These communities are bearing that brunt now.”

According to research from Kerry Emanuel, a leading climate and hurricane expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it has become six times more likely for a storm to bring Harvey-level amounts of rain in the last 25 years.

“Climate change … will greatly increase the probability of extreme events,” Emanuel said.

Hurricanes are powered by evaporation of seawater, and warmer water evaporates more quickly, he explained. The higher the temperature of seawater, the more intense the hurricane in terms of size, wind speed and rainfall. Emanuel found that storms like Hurricane Harvey, which increased in intensity before hitting land, might have been once-a-century events in the 1900s, but now they are projected to occur every five to 10 years.

And when those storms hit, vulnerable communities will bear the risk.

“Unfortunately the residents in these communities just don’t have the resources to pick up and move to a higher elevation area,” Yvette Arellano said. “They just don’t.”

On the heels of this record-breaking hurricane season, Metzger said that Texans need to prepare for more Harveys in the future.

“We need to make our communities less susceptible to flooding, sewage overflow and leaks from toxic waste sites,” Metzger said. “If there is any lesson to be learned from these devastating hurricanes, it’s that Texas deserves better shelter from the storms.”


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