The Dangers Our Big Storms Dredge Up

Hurricanes like Harvey and Maria put those who live near toxic waste sites in double jeopardy.

Tropical Storm Harvey in the Gulf of Mexico on August 24

Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

Once its deadly winds have calmed, a hurricane’s wrath isn’t over. The disaster simply morphs into a different type of catastrophe. As we’re currently seeing in post-Maria Puerto Rico, the systems on which society depends can break down and fail. Power outages may last for days or even weeks; there are no guarantees regarding access to potable water, food supplies, and medical attention; and communication can revert to the pre-digital, or even the pre-telephonic, era.

Hurricanes destroy, but they also reveal horrors that have been around us all along. Among them is the fact that too many of our communities are situated next to toxic sites that are, quite literally, disasters waiting to happen.

In Houston, for example, Hurricane Harvey led to nearly 80 deaths, damaged 136,000 homes, and displaced more than a million people. The discovery that their city is now awash in hazardous chemicals has protracted and compounded Houstonians’ trauma.

More than a dozen Superfund sites sustained damage during Harvey; one of them, the San Jacinto Waste Pits, was used for many years by a paper mill as a dump for dioxins, some of the most highly toxic chemicals out there. When Harvey hit, the sludge pits leaked. One post-hurricane sample showed dioxin levels at more than 2,000 times the legal limit.

The San Jacinto Waste Pits
Credit: EPA

That’s bad enough, but then you realize that the waste pits are located on the San Jacinto River just 20 minutes by car from downtown Houston. Perhaps that’s one reason the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—which only recently proposed a plan to remove more than 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the site, even though it’s been a well-known public health hazard for decades—now seems to be paying much closer attention.

Meanwhile, the district attorney for Harris County just announced that her office is launching a criminal investigation into Arkema, a chemical company whose facility in Crosby, right next door to Houston, suffered numerous explosions in the wake of Harvey. When floodwaters inundated the facility, its refrigerators failed and the volatile peroxides stored there began to destabilize, dangerously, in the heat.

Between August 31 and September 3, several explosions at the Crosby facility took place: The first few were accidental; the rest were controlled and ordered by the fire marshal. Either way, countless toxins exploded into the air, shrouded in long billows of black smoke. Local residents reported vomiting and nausea, and more than a dozen first responders had to be treated for exposure at local hospitals. The responders are currently filing a lawsuit against the company.

What exactly were those chemicals that sickened so many people? Few know, because Arkema doesn’t want the public to find out—and the state of Texas allows chemical companies to keep their inventories secret.

Many who live outside the Gulf Coast are now learning, for the first time, just how vulnerable Houston’s fence-line communities are to the hazards brought by the area’s oil and chemical industries—and not just during hurricanes, but every day. The city’s idiosyncratic zoning rules allow many neighborhoods to be just a few hundred yards from facilities that, as a matter of course, pollute their surroundings. And a disproportionate number of these communities are communities of color.

Along with unearthing toxic sludge that’s been sitting around for decades, another thing a natural disaster can expose is the myth that people can live in health and safety next to, or near, polluting facilities. They can’t.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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