Tropical Storm Harvey may be on the move — but its after-effects are just beginning to be realised.
In addition to slamming homes and hospitals, the storm struck the heart of Texas’ refining industry, where roughly a third of America’s oil is processed. In its wake, more than two million pounds of hazardous chemicals have been released into the air, according to filings reported with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and first reported by Politico.
Those chemicals include cancer-causing and potentially lethal gases like carbon monoxide and benzene, among others.
Shortly after Harvey made landfall, companies including Exxon Mobil and Valero Energy began to shutter local facilities and evacuate workers, taking close to a fifth of the nation’s total refining capacity offline.
Yet those efforts failed, in many cases, to prevent the release of hazardous pollutants into the environment.
In some cases, companies were forced to intentionally burn chemicals as a means of disposing them in anticipation of the storm. Chevron Phillips, the company that reported the largest release, burned close to 800,000 pounds of chemicals — nearly 300,000 of which were the colorless, odourless, and potentially deadly gas carbon monoxide — as it shuttered its plant to prepare for Harvey.
At other plants, Harvey’s rising waters easily overwhelmed existing safety precautions.
At Exxon’s Baytown plant, the floating roof covering one tank “partially sank during the excess rain event” from the storm, it noted in a TCEQ filing showing that close to 13,000 pounds of chemicals — including cancer-causing benzene and toxic lung-irritant xylene — had been released. Similarly, officials at Kinder Morgan’s Pasadena terminal, which released close to 300,000 pounds of chemicals, noted in a filing that several floating roof tanks were “impacted by torrential downpour” from Harvey.
Wei-Chun Chin, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Merced who has contributed research on the after-effects of oil spills like Deepwater Horizon, told Business Insider that although the immediate effects of these pollutants on the air sound concerning, he is more worried about the potential for some of those chemicals to stick around.
“I’m more concerned about things that could have a lingering effect and stay in the soil,” said Chin. “Benzene is a known carcinogen. So if that’s coming back into the ground that would be very bad.”
Still, Chin said that researchers’ ability to get accurate numbers on these pollutants is very limited right now.
“In many of these areas, the air monitoring stations are suspended. With no measurement we just don’t know the concentrations,” he said.
TCEQ is delaying any response to the leaks until flood waters have receded, according to a statement.
“In an ongoing emergency response, the TCEQ and other state agencies give priority to protecting and preventing imminent threats to public health,” the statement reads. “Once flood waters have receded, and it is safe to enter flooded areas, debris removal activities will commence. The TCEQ is aware that spills occur during flooding events, and the appropriate primary agency will monitor and work with the responsible party, if known, to take appropriate actions as conditions allow.”
Exxon-Mobil did not respond to a request for comment.
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