Slow And Upbeat EPA Response To Hurricane Harvey Pollution Angers Residents
Enlarge this image toggle caption Frank Bajak/AP Frank Bajak/AP
Juan Flores and his family reside in Galena Park, Texas, which is normally bordered on three sides by pipeline terminals, oil refineries, fertilizer vegetation and rail yards.
Flores has lived found in the town of about 11,000 people just east of downtown Houston since he was first 4 years old. For a while, he even served on the city council.
After all these years, he’s accustomed to the rhythms of life among the industrial plants. Peculiar smells and occasional warnings to shelter set up don’t bother him an excessive amount of. “I live so near [one] company that I can hear their alarms,” he says. “The truth is, you hear it so much you receive immune to it, and it’s like background noise.”
But additionally, there are occasions when he takes see. “If I smell something out in this article, it’s undesirable,” he says, “and I can tell you during Harvey, it smelled genuine bad.”
Hurricane Harvey caused industrial facilities in Texas to release an extra 5.98 million pounds of pollution into the air, based on the most recent analysis by environmentally friendly Security Fund. The pollutants benzene and toluene, both carcinogens, in addition to a brew of different chemicals that can irritate eye and exacerbate respiratory challenges.
But for days after the flooding began, the people of Galena Park and different neighboring communities had little or no information regarding the air these were breathing. Weather monitors scattered across the region were removed from service, to safeguard them from storm destruction, officials say.
The Environmental Protection Organization, university teams and environmental groups did some air testing as the monitors were down, but the limited effort produced far less information than the permanent air monitoring network could have.
The EPA opted to wait until the majority of the monitors were back up and running – in regards to a week – to begin releasing statements to the general public about air quality.
“We released our info as it became available,” says performing EPA regional administrator Sam Coleman. “We were working with both the point out and others to make certain we could access every area safely and make sure our data collection will be performed in a constant and statistically valid approach. So it took a little bit of time to make certain all those details were exercised.”
All the while, Flores says, the smell of gasoline was as a result strong in Galena Park that his eye were watering. Flores does community outreach for the Houston air quality nonprofit AirAlliance, so he knew enough about pollution to be concerned. He switched off his air conditioner, trying to keep to keep the noxious air out of his residence, and especially from his toddler.
“Some people left Galena Park,” he remembers. “They’re like, ‘Man, I can’t take this.’ ”
On Sept. 3, eight days after Harvey reach Houston, the EPA released a news release. The section on air quality read:
“One of the many preparations for Hurricane Harvey included EPA, TCEQ, and different monitoring entities temporarily removing approximately 75 percent of the stationary air monitoring apparatus from the greater Houston, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont areas. Since then, state and regional authorities are working to achieve the systems up and running again. “By Saturday, September 2, over 70 percent of the monitors happen to be up and working again; and authorities anticipate that the network will end up being fully operational again by next week. Of the available air monitoring info collected from August 24-September 2, 2017, all measured concentrations were very well below levels of well being concern. Monitors are showing that air quality at this time is not concerning and local people shouldn’t be concerned about air quality problems related to the consequences of the storm.”
The statement simultaneously acknowledged the lack of information about that which was in the air, and reassured the general public that the air was safe.
Chris Sellers, who studies environmental background and the EPA at Stony Brook University, says this kind of statement is regular. “That is a tried and true [reaction], not just for environmental companies, but also for public health companies generally,” he clarifies. “They feel like they cannot admit uncertainty about dangers, particularly in the face of public panic.”
A Toxic Brew
Sellers says the urge to reassure the general public that the air is safe can be dangerous. For example, after the World Trade Centre attack on Sept. 11, 2001, public well being officials, like the EPA, reassured people that the air around the collapsed structures in Manhattan was safe, even though there was hardly any data about air quality in the area.
Years later, long-term well being studies found thousands of workers had gotten ill from the air. New York City ultimately reached a multimillion dollar settlement with 10,000 first responders and others who were subjected to dust and smoke.
A 2003 article from the EPA inspector basic found the agency’s response to 9/11 was not based on info, and it called on the EPA to do the job more closely with point out and local health insurance and environmental officials, along with other federal agencies, to avoid misleading public safety announcements after disasters.
Coleman says that collaboration did happen during Harvey. For example, all press releases after the storm had been jointly released by the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Top quality.
Enlarge this image toggle caption U.S. Coast Safeguard via AP U.S. Coast Guard via AP
“I think this response was an excellent exemplory case of cooperation at all levels of federal government,” says Coleman, who previously worked on the EPA’s emergency response to Hurricane Katrina. “After Katrina, we found that there were often some conditions where EPA and the point out could not communicate info quickly and effectively,” he says, “and we feel like we corrected that in this response by obtaining the information out in simply a matter of days after it was collected.”
But Retailers says collaboration hasn’t fixed the underlying difficulty. He says the EPA isn’t set up to take care of chemical disasters, especially types that involved the launch of a mixture of chemicals across large areas.
“Most of the EPA’s infrastructure for monitoring is based on low-level chemical exposures, and exposures you may kind of select,” he says, measuring every individual chemical in the air, and analyzing the levels as time passes. “When you have a whole type of brew of chemicals that’s thrust into the air – as in 9/11 or as in Harvey – that’s what the EPA is very ill-equipped to take care of.”
Coleman disagrees. “While there are some restrictions to the instrumentation, these procedures are the acceptable ways that this data should be collected,” he says of the air monitoring program. “It’s how exactly we report these details to the general public throughout the whole country.”
“You can’t hide that.”
To Juan Flores, the phrasing of EPA statements after Harvey felt such as a slap found in the face. He had been smelling gasoline in his community for days when the agency told residents there is nothing to worry about.
“After all, god, we smelled it, why make an effort to hide it? After all, we’re not idiots,” he says angrily, sitting down on his living place couch. “You can reveal all you have to ‘Oh, you fellas are good, nothing to worry about,’ ” he proceeds, and curses in frustration. “We’re the types smelling it! You can’t hide that.”
The mystery was solved when Magellan Midstream, a pipeline and petrochemical storage company in Galena Park, disclosed that nearly half of a million gallons of gasoline had leaked out at its storage facility on Aug. 31. It turned out to be the largest sole petrochemical leak reported to end up being caused by Harvey.
The business had first reported the leak, and the evacuation of employees from their facility, to the National Response Center spill hotline just after midnight on Sept. 1., two days before the EPA news release saying the air was safe.
Flores worries about medical results from inhaling gasoline that evaporated into the air. Inhaling gas could cause respiratory challenges. In larger amounts it can damage organs or contribute to cancer.
“Believe me, I think about it each day,” Flores says. “I’m like, I wonder just how many years of life I’m losing because I live out here. But it’s house.”
But, he says, if he must leave his house to keep his family group safe, he will.