Texas Clean Air Matters

Following Florence, lessons from Harvey in recovery and resilience

By Shannon Cunniff

With the impacts of Hurricane Florence continuing to unfold, coastal communities in the Southeast will soon be looking to other coastal areas, like Houston, as models for rebuilding resiliently. By doing so, they can speed their recovery and build back in smart ways – because that’s what resilience is all about.

For Houston, it wasn’t a single event that triggered discussions of resilience. Houston residents have faced a decade of intense storms and floods, with Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Memorial Day Flood of 2015, the Tax Day Flood of 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Together, these repeat catastrophic events sounded the alarm that past approaches to managing flood waters are not sufficient.

Last week, I went to Houston to help decision-makers explore how the city can realize its aim to become more resilient. One year after Harvey, Houston is still learning from its experiences and building upon lessons learned from mega-disasters like Katrina and Sandy to move more rapidly into resilience-building phases. That’s good news, because with more frequent, intense weather events, communities across the nation are going to have to rebuild smarter.

Once communities and officials in the Southeast begin thinking about recovery from Florence and preparing to rebuild, there are four key lessons they can learn from Houston after Harvey that will ultimately help them strengthen the social, economic and environmental fabric of the region. Read More »

Posted in Extreme Weather / Comments are closed

Why accurate reporting of air pollution after Hurricane Harvey matters

Hartmann Park, Valero Refinery, Manchester County, Houston Texas.

In addition to dumping historic amounts of rain across southeast Texas, Hurricane Harvey triggered a wave of air pollution, with petrochemical plants and oil refineries releasing 8.3 million pounds of harmful chemicals that exceeded state limits. At least, that is what they told state officials.

Companies, however, reduced those estimates by 1.7 million pounds in later filings with the state, a new Environmental Defense Fund analysis found.

The steep drop suggests that some companies may not have accounted accurately for all Harvey-related pollution increases in their reporting to the state. As a result, people’s exposure to hazardous air pollutants, such as cancer-causing benzene and 1,3-butadiene, may be substantially underestimated.

Industry frequently justified the changes in emissions estimates by arguing that flexible state-issued permits, as well as Gov. Greg Abbott’s suspension of several environmental rules in advance of Harvey, made the pollution legal. Read More »

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Justice, Houston, Ozone, TCEQ, Texas Permitting, Uncategorized / Comments are closed

Texans urge Gov. Abbott to act on storm-related air pollution before the next Harvey

With the start of this year’s hurricane season, Environmental Defense Fund and our partners in the Houston-based One Breath Partnership delivered a letter signed by more than 3,000 Texans and 20 organizations to Gov. Greg Abbott, urging him to act now to protect people from harmful air pollution before the next storm.

The letter to Gov. Abbott comes after Hurricane Harvey unleashed a second storm of air pollution. By industry’s own estimates, the Houston region’s network of oil refineries and petrochemical plants released more than 2 million pounds of harmful chemicals into the air during and after the storm – the equivalent of six months’ worth of unauthorized air pollution in just a few days.

Many industrial plants in Harvey’s path released extra pollutants into the air when they shut down in preparation for the storm and when they resumed operations. For example, Chevron Phillips’ Cedar Bayou chemical plant in Baytown reported releasing roughly 750,000 pounds of excess emissions, including smog-forming volatile organic compounds.

Harvey damaged other facilities, allowing hazardous gases to escape. EDF and Houston officials, for example, detected alarmingly high levels of benzene in Manchester, a neighborhood adjacent to a storm-damaged Valero Energy refinery. In Crosby, explosions at a flooded chemical plant triggered an evacuation of nearby residents and sent emergency workers to hospitals. Yet, for all the attention the Arkema episode received, industry reports showed that there were 10 larger releases of air pollution because of storm damage, an EDF analysis found.

“TCEQ was unprepared to track Harvey’s air pollution in real time,” said Elena Craft, senior health scientist at EDF. “Although TCEQ has dozens of stationary monitors across Houston, many of them were turned off during the storm. That is why mobile, on-the-ground monitoring is so crucial. We need to be sure that the agency is there when it is needed, doing its job to protect the people from exposure to different environmental threats.” Read More »

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Justice, Houston, Legislation, TCEQ, Uncategorized / Comments are closed

With hurricane season approaching, Texas should heed Harvey’s warning on climate change

The 2018 hurricane season is just around the corner – June 1st, in fact.

Initial predictions for this year’s season say we should expect it to be more active than average, which is unwelcome news to a state that is still reeling from Hurricane Harvey. And, while some areas are bracing for more hurricanes before they’ve even recovered from the last one, the majority of the state is already back in drought.

The weather rollercoaster that Texas has always ridden is getting more intense, thanks in large part to climate change. Not only is climate change real and happening, but Texas will be among the areas hardest hit economically by its effects. Put simply, our state can no longer afford not to act on climate change.

Over the past few months, we have been looking at issues related to Hurricane Harvey, like how the storm wreaked havoc on people’s health and how the state can better invest in coastal resilience.

With all of this in mind, the Texas Legislative Session is about six months away – and the Lone Star State should heed Harvey’s lessons. Read More »

Also posted in Climate Change, ERCOT / Tagged | Comments are closed

How a multifaceted approach could strengthen Texas’ coastal resilience before the next Harvey

By: Shannon Cunniff, Director, Coastal Resilience, with contributions from Kate Zerrenner

Hurricane Harvey provided a stark reminder to Houston, Port Aransas, and other Texas communities of the power of storms and the consequences of living on a flood-prone coast.

When hurricanes hit, coastal counties experience rain, wind, waves, and storm surge. Nearly 30 percent of Texas’ population lives in Gulf Coast or adjacent inland counties, where hurricanes are the most destructive weather phenomena. With a changing climate, we can expect more extreme weather.

Fortunately, we can decrease our vulnerability, lower the risk of damaging floodwaters, and reduce the impacts associated with these disasters. Such actions, called hazard mitigation, require a multifaceted approach, and implementing the strategy will require multiple levels of responsibility: It will need to be executed by individuals and businesses, and supported with a high level of intra-government cooperation. And it will need to be sustained over time.

Other coastal areas including Louisiana are already implementing these multi-pronged coastal protection plans. Texas also has the opportunity to be a leader in coastal resilience. Read More »

Posted in Extreme Weather / Tagged , | Comments are closed

A healthier, more resilient Houston needs cleaner air

This op-ed originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

In 2017, Houston endured 21 days with unhealthy levels of smog, triggering asthma attacks and missed school days for many of our children and hospitalizations for grandparents.

And, believe it or not, that was an improvement. As this century began, Houston took the unwanted title of America’s smog capital from Los Angeles, a sign of the region’s growing industries and traffic. Since then, our community, with the help of stronger federal safeguards, has made significant advances in air quality, allowing us to drop to No. 12 in the American Lung Association’s latest ranking of most polluted cities.

As the coughing and burning lungs from last year painfully remind us, Houston is still suffering from a public health problem that we cannot pretend is in our rear-view mirror. We must face the reality: There is a lot more work to do bring our air into compliance with health-based standards.

Read More »

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Justice, Houston, Legislation, TCEQ / Comments are closed