Hurricane Harvey unleashed an environmental crisis for the Houston region and revealed our collective vulnerability to being exposed to pollution in our air, water, and land. According to data compiled by the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), during the storm, 94 chemical incidents were reported in the greater Houston-Galveston region involving more than 700,000 gallons of pollutants released into water and land, and more than 5 million pounds of pollutants released into the air—and that’s just an initial assessment.
Hazardous materials leaked into land and waterways, including from the San Jacinto Waste Pits, where the EPA has now approved clean-up of the Superfund site after years of community advocacy. Water samples collected from residential dwellings discovered Vibrio and E. coli at levels 135 times higher than safe contact thresholds, with two confirmed deaths in our region from flesh easting bacteria. And, contamination to community water systems (CWS) from the storm resulted in TCEQ issuing boil water notices.
But Air Alliance Houston focuses on toxic air emissions—we know that there were spikes in pollution during Harvey. Millions of pounds of hazardous air pollutants, such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene, were emitted from storm-related spills and releases from damaged industrial facilities and petrochemical refineries, the shut down and start-up processes of these facilities, as well as emissions from equipment used for clean-up activities. Cancer-causing pollution was released in extremely high concentrations in some neighborhoods, across Houston ozone levels were high enough to be unhealthy for all residents, and local health systems reported an increase in respiratory infections. Furthermore, an analysis by Greenpeace revealed that the most hazardous chemicals were released in communities of color and low-income.
Given the massive environmental and public health implications of this storm, The University of Texas Environmental Law Clinic and Air Alliance Houston brought together over 20 advocacy organizations to determine changes that are needed in the future to ensure better protection of people, particularly fenceline communities and our most vulnerable residents, and our environment. During the next few months, Air Alliance Houston commits to working in partnership with these communities and a wide swath of advocacy organizations to ensure a just and resilient rebuilding process.