While we’re still a long way from understanding the full environmental impact of Hurricane Harvey, the damage has been done, and experts say Harvey has highlighted inconsistencies in Texas’ ability to contain hazardous materials in the face of future storms.
The storm was responsible for 600,000 gallons of spilled gasoline statewide, much of it in Houston. More than 7 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the air. Rain from Harvey flooded Superfund sites, raising questions about the government response. And explosions and fires at the Arkema chemical plant west of Houston sent more than a dozen first responders to the hospital.
What policies could help prevent these things from happening again in the next big storm?
A lot of the spilled fuel came from Magellan Midstream Partners storage tanks that were damaged in the storm near the Houston Ship Channel.
Kara Cook-Schultz, director of the toxics program at the Texas Public Interest Research Group, says flood-proofing could be the most effective policy change going forward.
“Oil and gasoline tanks are not required to be flood-proofed,” she said. She argues that if the state or federal government mandated flood-proofing for fuel storage tanks, it would be “a legal requirement that every company has to follow.”
Cook-Schultz and others say flood-proofing might have been useful in the Arkema plant explosion, as well.
Those chemicals caught fire after refrigeration units were forced offline when backup generators at the plant flooded. So, Cook-Schultz asks, why not mandate that generators be built and positioned in such a way that they won’t flood?
“That’s applicable to almost any chemical plant, and it’s also applicable to nuclear plants,” she said, citing the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. "Their backup generators failed and were flooded. So, this is a really big deal. We should totally make sure that backup generators are flood-proofed.”
Increased reporting and spill safeguards
The process of fracking and oil production generates contaminated wastewater that Texas companies generally store in pits or pump back underground. But Luke Metzger, the state director of Environment Texas, says they’re not required to report when wastewater spills.
That means we don’t know how much wastewater potentially washed across Texas streets, and potentially into waterways, during the storm.
“That’s different than many other states around the U.S.,” he said. “Who knows what quantities may have been released? We just don’t have that data.”
Other rules he thinks Texas should pick up from other states?
“We can require all new and existing wells to have remote shut-offs, as they require in Colorado,” he said. “Wells can be retrofitted with containment berms that can help control spills.”
'Staggering' toxic emissions
The Environmental Defense Fund initially estimated that Texas petrochemical plants would release about 1 million pounds of unauthorized emissions into the air thanks to Harvey. The group now puts that number around 7 million pounds – and counting.
The problem is that each time a refinery shuts down and then restarts it emits a lot of toxic chemicals.
"An analogy would be like the cold start of a car,” toxicologist Elena Craft told KUT last month. “It would take a while for the engines to heat up to the appropriate temperature to actually burn off some of the pollution.”
One thing she says the refining industry could do to improve air quality after such a disaster would be to “stagger” the restarting of chemical plants. It wouldn’t reduce the emissions, but it could reduce their concentrations in the air.
Another regulation Craft thinks might have helped mitigate damage at the Arkema plant fire is one that used to be on the books. The updated management rule was put into place after a fertilizer plant in West killed 15 people in 2013, but EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suspended it earlier this year.
“There were improvements that were made to that rule that he suspended that would have provided additional information to communities, that would have provided additional information to local emergency first responders,” she says.
Seven first responders have sued Arkema, saying they were severely injured by fumes from the fires.