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Receding Floodwaters Could Release Toxic Emissions From Houston's Chemical Plants

Environmental groups say, as floodwaters recede in Houston following Harvey, runoff of dangerous chemicals from petrochemical plants will likely follow.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Environmental groups say, as floodwaters recede in Houston following Harvey, runoff of dangerous chemicals from petrochemical plants will likely follow.

On Sunday morning Jessica Hulsey woke up in her home in Houston’s East End. She went to her front door to see how high the water had risen – but it wasn’t the water that surprised her.  

“As soon as I opened the door the smell hit my nose,” she said.

It smelled kind like gasoline. At first, she thought she may have the gas can for her lawnmower out. But she hadn’t, and, as it turns out, her neighbors smelled it too.

“I was just asking myself, I wonder where this strong smell is coming from,” Hulsey said.

The area around Houston is home to around 450 petrochemical plants, making it one of the biggest oil refining hubs in the world. As the storm pummeled and flooded the Gulf Coast, those plants were not spared, and some began emitting toxic chemicals. 

The roof of an ExxonMobil refinery in nearby Baytown was damaged by the storm.

“They have a limited amount of crew at the location because they want to minimize any safety concerns with their employees,” said Baytown City Clerk Lettie Brysch on Tuesday.

All told, a Chevron facility flooded, a pipeline leaked and refiners Shell and Petrobras also to shut down plants in Baytown. In the town of Crosby, floods knocked out power to an organic peroxide plant.  Then, the backup generators were flooded.  Yesterday, officials evacuated employees and nearby residents because, if the chemicals there aren’t properly refrigerated, they might explode.

“It’s not just that we have refineries or petrochemical facilities or boutique chemical plants, we have everything,” said Elena Craft, a toxicologist with the Environmental Defense Fund

Industry says it’s doing everything it can to minimize emissions caused by the storm. But Craft says the very act of shutting these plants down and restarting them actually produces pollution, and that has her worried.

“An analogy would be like the cold start of a car,” Craft explained. “Where, if you turn it off and then turn it back on – at least the older engines – it would take a while for the engines to heat up to the appropriate temperature to actually burn off some of the pollution.”

The EDF and other groups are keeping track of filings with the state. Right now, they expect around a million tons of toxic chemicals will be released around Houston as a result of the storm and floods – many of them carcinogenic.

“How many pounds of benzene or butadiene would you like to be exposed to?” she asks. “None!”

It’s a problem that will persist even as the waters recede, as much of that pollution won’t be released until Houston’s factories and refineries get back online. 

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.