Health / National / Science

Residents cough, rub eyes in Harvey pollution spike

In this Sept. 2, 2017 photo, community environmental activist Juan Flores talks a reporter in Galena Park, Texas. Petrochemical corridor residents say air that is bad enough on normal days got unbearable as Harvey crashed into the nation’s fourth-largest city and then yielded the highest ozone pollution of the year anywhere in Texas. (AP Photo/Frank Bajak)

GALENA PARK, Texas (AP) — Cindy Sanchez began to feel ill while barbecuing just before Harvey’s torrents started pelting this city just east of Houston, along a corridor with the nation’s highest concentration of petrochemical plants.

“I started getting really, really bad headaches,” said Sanchez, a 32-year-old housewife. “I never get headaches.”

“My husband’s eyes were burning,” she said. “He actually had a napkin that was wet over his eyes.” The sewage-like stench chased the couple indoors and Sanchez, sick to her stomach, lay down.

People complained of headaches, nausea, itchy skin and throats — classic symptoms of industrial chemical exposure — as plants and refineries raced to burn off compounds that could combust in extreme weather or power loss.

Petrochemical corridor residents say air that is bad enough on normal days got worse as Harvey crashed into the nation’s fourth-largest city and then yielded the highest ozone pollution so far this year anywhere in Texas. The Houston metro area was ranked 12th in the nation for worst ozone pollution by The American Lung Association this year, although its air was better than the Los Angeles and New York regions.

Plants owned by Shell, Chevron, Exxon-Mobil and other industry giants reported more than 1.5 million pounds (680 metric tons) of extraordinary emissions over eight days beginning Aug. 23 to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality in Harris County, which encompasses Houston. That amounted to 61 percent of this year’s largely unpermitted emissions for the county and five times the amount released in the same period in 2016. Of the known carcinogens released during Harvey, more than 13 tons were benzene. Inhaling it can cause dizziness and even unconsciousness and long-term exposure can trigger leukemia.

Asked about the health effects of the dramatic emissions spike, state environmental commission spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said “all measured concentrations were well below levels of health concern” and “local residents should not be concerned about air quality issues related to the effects of the storm.” The federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a similar statement.

Yet most air monitors were knocked out or offline during Harvey’s wrath, making measurement difficult.

Texas sets fines low for industrial polluters— at $25,000 per day for federal clean air violations. Big plants tend to delay shutdowns for as long as possible when a hurricane is coming — then restart quickly afterward — triggering another spike in unhealthy emissions, said Daniel Cohan, a Rice University environmental scientist.

“These (plants) are three and four decades old, beasts that are meant to operate all the time.”

Asked if emissions could have been reduced by winding down plant operations sooner, American Petroleum Institute spokesman Reid Porter said: “We are still gathering information and making assessments.”

Some emissions were triggered by the sheer volume of Harvey’s deluge.

At an Arkema Inc. plant about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of downtown Houston, organic peroxides rendered unstable by lost refrigeration exploded in flames and cast an acrid plume.  At least 18 tons burned after people within a 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) radius were evacuated. On Thursday, seven sheriff’s deputies and emergency medical responders sued Arkema in state court for gross negligence, claiming fumes from the incident made them vomit and gasp for air.

Benzene and other toxins spilled into the air outside the Valero Partners refinery on Houston’s east side, as heavy rains damaged a tank’s floating roof and invaded a dike.

A city health department air monitor downwind of the refinery on Friday registered an alarming level of up to 14,000 parts per billion of volatile organic compounds, some carcinogenic, said department chief scientist Loren Raun, and aerial monitoring continued to detect benzene on Monday.

On Sept. 1, Houston registered Texas’ worst ozone pollution this year — an average of 95 parts per billion (ppb) over eight hours. It was Harris County’s first of four straight days of unhealthy ozone levels, exceeding the EPA standard of 70 ppb.

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