While up to 30% of Houston’s county (Harris County) is underwater, people are pointing out that Harris County has more toxic waste sites than any county in Texas. Over a dozen federal “Superfund sites,” toxic waste sites sit in Harris County.
Worse, on Tuesday ExxonMobil reported two of its refineries east of Houston as damaged by the flood, and that the damaged refineries “released pollutants.” It is unclear exactly what “pollutants” were released and how, or where they will end up.
The flood caused several dams to spill over for the first time ever, and there are more toxic waste sites than just the federal ones. The other ones are managed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The EPA released this map of high risk areas for toxic waste sites contaminating floodwaters.
Houston is part of something called the “Chemical Coast,” with a massive chemical and petroleum industry.
According to Mathy Stanislaus, who oversaw the federal Superfund program for toxic waste sites, the EPA “typically” tries to identify toxic waste sites in a storm’s path to “shore up the active operations” and “minimize seepage from sites.”
Apparently, the EPA is failing right now. Hurricane Katrina’s path hit relatively few Superfund sites, which were tested by the EPA after it struck.
If the toxic waste sites flood, the flood may not only poison people who are freely swimming in the floodwaters or coming into contact with it, but it may deposit toxic chemicals elsewhere in Houston where it wasn’t present before. According to Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law:
“If the water picks up contaminated sediment from sites, that may get deposited in areas where people frequent — residential properties, parks, ballfields — that were never contaminated before. We can’t say for sure it will happen, but it’s certainly a possibility.”
A description of a few toxic waste sites comes from the Texas Tribune:
“In addition to the toxic pits at the Brio in Houston’s Friendswood community, Harris County’s polluted Superfund sites include the low-lying San Jacinto River Waste Pits that “is subject to flooding from storm surges generated by both tropical storms (i.e. hurricanes) and extra tropical storms” that push water inward from Galveston Bay, according to an Army Corps of Engineers report released last year.
There’s also the Many Diversified Interests site near the heart of the city, the Crystal Chemical Co. site in southwest Houston, the Patrick Bayou site off the Houston Ship Channel, and the Jones Road Plume dry cleaning waste site. They include oily sludge and contaminants dangerous to inhale or touch: perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene and chlorinated hydrocarbons, to name a few.”
Wes Highfield, a scientist at Texas A&M University’s Galveston campus tried to collect water samples as floodwaters got dangerously close to his home on the south side of Houston.
A toxic superfund site called the Brio Refining site near his home once had ethylbenzene, chlorinated hydrocarbons, and other hazardous chemicals sitting in pits before the EPA removed them. It sounds like they didn’t clean the pools well enough. Highfield says it sits “just up the road, and it drains into our watershed.”
“Yesterday as these large retention ponds filled up, eight feet deep in places, kids were swimming in them, and that’s not good.”
Hopefully the floodwaters will not be poisoned, and if they are, people will stay as dry as they can. Who knows what could be in those waters.