Dear Air Alliance Houston Community Members,
As we mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, I want you to know that the devastation faced by many Houstonians and their families has not been forgotten. A year later, community members are continuing to share their stories as many parts of the city continue to recover, and our efforts to address the environmental and public health impacts of the storm continue. I wanted to take the opportunity to provide an update about the progress we have made on our plans and projects in the last year.
Harvey-related air pollution and public health impacts from the storm.
During and in the immediate weeks after the storm, industry estimates revealed that Houston area residents were exposed to over 8 million pounds of Harvey-related air pollution. Several organizations, including Air Alliance Houston, collected information from residents about the public health impacts during this period. One month after the storm, AAH staff members went door-to-door, collecting over 1,300 surveys in North Pasadena in neighborhoods. Over 40 percent of residents reported Harvey-related health impacts. The Episcopal Health Foundation’s survey revealed that among those who suffered damage to their home or property, 17 percent reported that they or a family member experienced new or worsening health conditions. Four months after the storm, the University of Texas School of Public Health found that 22 percent of residents experienced worsening of an existing health condition or physical injury, or a new illness – including 22 percent reporting respiratory issues such as asthma.
At this point, we will never know the actual amount of air pollution released during this time or the true extent of adverse health outcomes. However, these sources of data shed light on how the storm affected air quality and public health. Since Harvey, the Houston Health Department, Rice University and Environmental Defense Fund, have launched a health registry to track health impacts related to the storm and use this information to take steps to minimize exposures during future disasters.
Inadequate information from industry and public agencies has spurred investigations.
Last year, when the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) shut down over 75 percent of public air monitors, AAH and our partners worked with the media to raise awareness about the fact that regulatory agencies were not providing adequate information to the public about air pollution. During Harvey, TCEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency offered broad assertions that the air quality was not a danger. EDF and AAH’s mobile air monitoring efforts helped to detect a benzene plume in the Manchester community, which resulted in an ongoing EPA investigation of the Valero Refinery. As a result of these collective efforts, the EPA Office of the Inspector General recently launched an investigation into the TCEQ’s and EPA’s response to the storm. I have been interviewed as a part of the EPA OIG investigation and we will keep you informed as the investigation progresses.
We will remain involved in protecting Houston communities from chemical threats.
When the Arkema plant explosion occurred in Crosby after the storm, we were vocal about the need to hold industry accountable for the damages caused to communities. The Chemical Safety Board’s investigation revealed that Arkema could have done more to prevent the explosion that occurred during Harvey. This incident is just one of many examples that highlights why facilities that store and process hazardous chemicals need to prioritize protecting public health and safety. A Harris County grand jury recently indicted Arkema executives for the ‘reckless’ release of toxic chemicals during Harvey.
At the national level, we are pleased to report that we won our lawsuit to stop the EPA’s delay of the implementation of the Chemical Disaster Rule, which exists to not only reduce the risk of disasters but also to protect the people living near industrial facilities and those who respond to accidents when they do occur. We will continue our efforts to protect Houston communities as the EPA is now attempting to rescind the rule.
We will continue to be a strong advocate for clean air and public health.
In the last year, AAH and the Powis Firm brought together 25 organizations to form the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience. One goal of this coalition is to establish a joint city-county environmental committee made up of residents, advocacy groups, government officials and industry representatives to ensure we have plans in place to reduce exposure to environmental hazards during future disasters such as Harvey.
We ask that you contact your city, county and state elected officials to express your support for AAH and CEER’s ongoing efforts. We also encourage all Houstonians to complete the Harvey Health Registry survey. Lastly, we encourage you to continue to contact AAH with any air quality concerns and share your air quality stories with One Breath Partnership to continue to inspire everyone from community members to elected officials to take action to improve air quality and protect public health.
We appreciate your ongoing support of our work.
Bakeyah S. Nelson
Air Alliance Houston