One year after Hurricane Harvey wrought destruction in the Houston area, a new report details the extent of the man-made environmental disasters that followed. The analysis also provides preparedness recommendations for industries along the coast that are vulnerable to future flooding.
“Preparing for the Next Storm: Learning from the Man-Made Environmental Disasters that Followed
Hurricane Harvey” was published by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that aims to protect public health and the environment by investigating polluters, holding them accountable under the law, and strengthening public policy.
The EIP report used state and federal records and data on air and water pollution releases during Hurricane Harvey. Petrochemical plants farther south minimized their pollution by shutting down preemptively as Harvey approached, but industries in the Houston region waited more than three days to do the same, the report found.
“After the heavy rains hit the Houston area on August 26, eight area plants shut down within 24 hours, triggering a dangerous pulse of 1.3 million pounds of un-permitted air pollution — much of it caused by flooding-driven emergencies, equipment failures, and electrical outages,” according to the EIP.
In the 48 hours after the heavy rainfall started in the Houston area, 23 incidents were reported to the state that released 2.2 million pounds of pollution, the report noted. Across the state, the hurricane triggered at least 8.3 million pounds of un-permitted air pollution to be released from petrochemical plants, EIP concluded.
“Sewage plants and industries in coastal Texas released more than 150 million gallons of wastewater because of the storm,” the EIP said. “But that figure represents significant underreporting, because at least 24% of facilities that reported overflows entered ‘zero’ as the quantity of their pollution — even though the text of their reports often suggest large amounts of were released.”
In addition, storage tanks holding crude oil, gasoline, and other hydrocarbons failed during the storm, releasing toxic pollutants, the report found. These tanks were often poorly maintained and not designed to withstand heavy rainfall.
The EIP report urged the state to improve reporting requirements and coordination. It also shared industry recommendations for reducing storm-related pollution in the future, such as:
- Refineries and other petrochemical plants need to invest in more robust backup electrical generation systems.
- Refineries and petrochemical plants should also invest in the best available pollution controls, including making their industrial storage tanks safer and more resilient, particularly the ones with floating roofs that frequently failed during Hurricane Harvey.
- Wastewater treatment plants should consider taking precautionary steps to deal with future floods, including by building more protective walls and levees, moving to higher ground, and green solutions such as integrating treatment areas with artificial wetlands.
- Industry and municipalities should work together to create detailed emergency response plans that include better risk communication and information for residents on pollution releases and public safety.
“As we head toward the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, it’s critical that we learn from the man-made environmental disasters that followed the storm and improve the storm-readiness of our pollution control systems for the future,” said Ilan Levin, Texas director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “Because with climate change, it’s not if but when the next major flood will strike.”