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.”

Harvey was one of the largest storm events ever recorded, but it was not the worst-case scenario. The state must adopt better management plans to protect public health from the environmental catastrophe that a direct hit from a hurricane could present.

The letter asks Gov. Abbott to:

  • Restore chemical right-to-know standards so that first responders and those living near industrial facilities can fully understand the potential hazards of plants’ chemical inventories;
  • Leave state environmental rules in place, rather than suspending them in response to storms, to make certain that companies take every necessary action to protect public health and safety, and;
  • Ensure that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is fully equipped to respond to pollution events by funding additional staff positions and tools, such as a mobile monitoring unit for full-time use in Houston.

The letter also asks Gov. Abbott to direct the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, to:

  • Use its authority to stagger startups and shutdowns in response to storms in order to minimize the cumulative impacts of pollution on the public;
  • Develop a plan for active air quality monitoring and surveillance, with the expectation that the agency deploys mobile sampling equipment during disasters and times of limited coverage from its stationary network, and;
  • Share as much information as it can about environmental sampling in real time – even if data is still under review for quality assurance – because the public should know about any pollution hazard. Also, refrain from making statements about impacts to public health – or absence of impacts – unless data fully supports them.

One Breath Partnership’s goal is clean air for a healthier and more resilient Houston. In addition to EDF, the founding partners include Air Alliance Houston, Environment Texas, Environmental Integrity Project, Public Citizen and Rice University.

For more information, go to www.onebreathhou.org or follow us on Facebook or Twitter @OneBreathHOU.

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