The predominantly Hispanic fenceline neighbourhood of Manchester was exposed to unusually high levels of cancer-causing benzene from the Valero Energy Partners refinery in southeast Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, community-driven sampling has revealed, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said concentrations of benzene and several other toxics met Texas health guidelines.
While the EPA hasn’t released detailed test results, the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Air Alliance Houston base their conclusions on six days of air sampling conducted by California-based Entanglement Technologies, with EDF picking up most of the US$20,000 cost for the company’s mobile monitoring lab, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune report.
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Valero initially told state officials the plant had released seven pounds of benzene when it was flooded and damaged by Harvey on August 27, the Wall Street Journal recalls. But on Thursday, a state official said the company had “informed the EPA that it believes it significantly underestimated the amount of [volatile organic compounds] and benzene released in its original report to the State of Texas Environmental Electronic Reporting System.”
On the same day, ProPublica and the Tribune were out with the EDF/Air Alliance test results. They showed that benzene levels in many locations, “though under the Texas threshold of 180 parts per billion, far exceeded California’s guidelines, which is 23 times more stringent and is well-respected by health advocates nationwide,” the two investigative news outlets state. “The two highest benzene concentrations, 90 and 77 ppb, were detected within 1,600 feet of a damaged storage tank at the Valero refinery. At the time the data was collected, the wind was blowing from the direction of the tank toward the monitoring sites.”
Both the EPA and the two environmental organizations began their monitoring after air pollution experts said much of the benzene would have dissipated. Earlier in the crisis, “the city of Houston detected a single benzene concentration of 324 ppb in Manchester,” the article states. And Manchester residents—some of whom live close enough to the plant to reach through the fence and touch nearby piping—could certainly smell the difference for several hours after the damage occurred.
University of Southern California environmental health professor Jill Johnston noted the air samples were taken over a period of minutes, so it’s hard to know whether they just recorded brief spikes in benzene levels. If the exposure lasted days or weeks, she added, residents would be at much higher risk. But Air Alliance Houston Executive Director Bakeyah Nelson said fenceline communities near industrial sites like Valero already show above-average rates of cancer, asthma, and other diseases linked to ongoing chemical exposure.
“This is real stuff, this is not theoretical,” said former EPA environmental justice official Mustafa Ali, now senior vice president of climate, environmental justice, and community revitalization at the Hip Hop Caucus. “If you go there and try to breathe, you can literally taste the petroleum and gasoline that’s in the air.”
While the Valero release may have been the most dramatic public health problem stemming from Hurricane Harvey, it was by no means the only one. Last week, testing commissioned by the New York Times showed dangerously high E. coli levels in the standing floodwaters, as well as elevated concentrations of lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals.
“There’s pretty clearly sewage contamination, and it’s more concentrated inside the home than outside the home,” said Rice University civil and environmental engineering professor Lauren Stadler, reporting on results from a downtown public housing development along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou.
“It suggests to me that conditions inside the home are more ideal for bacteria to grow and concentrate,” she added. “It’s warmer and the water has stagnated for days and days.” As well, “I know some kids were playing in the floodwater outside those places. That’s concerning to me.”
Among many other local health hazards, Winifred Hamilton, director of the Environmental Health Service at Baylor College of Medicine, pointed to mould exposure as a risk for people trying to clean and repair their homes, or moving back in.
“I’d be wearing a mask with a filter,’’ she said, “and goggles and gloves, with rubber boots. I would change my clothes immediately after leaving the house, and put them in the wash with nothing else.”
She added that “mould is taking off all over the city. People with allergies or asthma are particularly sensitive to it. If people have bad headaches, respiratory problems, swelling of a limb, or a bad rash, go see a doctor right away. Don’t assume it will go away on its own.’’
Hamilton also warned that kids shouldn’t be playing in the sand piled up all over Houston. “This is not clean sand, this is sludge sediment,” she said. “Don’t let your children play in sediment from the flood. We don’t want children playing in lead.”
As alarming as some of the post-Harvey coverage is becoming, it’s calm compared to the Trump administration reaction to an Associated Press exclusive in early September, reporting on seven Superfund waste sites in the Houston area that “had been inundated with water, in some cases many feet deep.” Hours after the news report hit, the EPA said aerial imagery confirmed 13 of the area’s 41 Superfund sites flooded and “experiencing possible damage”, but claimed the facilities had “not been accessible by response personnel” for direct inspection.
“AP journalists used a boat to document the condition of one flooded Houston-area Superfund site, but accessed others with a vehicle or on foot,” the news agency countered. “The EPA did not respond to questions about why its personnel had not yet been able to do so.”
A day after that news broke, “the EPA responded by attacking one of the reporters who wrote the story, while not disputing any of the facts involved,” New York magazine reported at the time. The statement, “written in the jarringly caustic and grammatically sloppy style that characterizes so many Trump administration communiqués,” went after reporter Michael Biesecker for “reporting from the comfort of Washington,” but made no mention of his colleague Jason Dearen, who was on the ground in Houston.
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