As the catastrophic flooding brought about by Hurricane Harvey continues to devastate Texas, reports of "unbearable" smells are beginning to emerge from the state, sparking growing concerns of the long-term health effects that could result from toxic waste and fumes being spewed from temporarily closed oil refineries.
"Air pollution is one of the unseen dangers of the storm."
—Dr. Elena Craft, Environmental Defense Fund
"At least 10 refineries on the Texas coast have shut down," notes the Huffington Post's Ryan Grenoble. "And whenever a refinery has to be closed or restarted, especially in emergency situations, its emissions far exceed what's typically allowed."
Environment Texas, a citizen-based environmental advocacy project of Environment America, said in a statement on Monday that Houston oil industry is likely "releasing more than 1 million pounds of harmful pollution into the air, according to its initial reports to Texas regulators."
"Air pollution is one of the unseen dangers of the storm," Dr. Elena Craft, senior health scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, told Environment Texas. "Poor air quality puts the most vulnerable among us, like children and seniors, at risk for asthma, heart attacks, strokes, and other health problems.”
Long before Harvey made landfall, environmental groups and scientists had been warning of the disastrous effects that could result from a massive storm like Harvey hitting Texas, the heart of the U.S. petrochemical industry. Now, judging by first-hand reports from the state, some of these concerns are coming to fruition.
As The New Republic's Emily Atkin noted on Monday, "residents of Houston's industrial fence-line communities are reporting strong gas- and chemical-like smells coming from the many refineries and chemical plants nearby." On several occasions, as reports late Monday indicated, Texans have been ordered to "shelter in place" amid reports of chemical leaks.
One resident—Bryan Parras, an activist with the environmental justice group TEJAS—told Atkin that he has been smelling the fumes "all night," and that some Texans are already experiencing symptoms: "headaches, sore throat, scratchy throat, and itchy eyes."
In an interview on Democracy Now! Monday, Parras added that you could see "the black smoke" emitted by the refineries as "excess chemicals" were being burnt off.
"Unfortunately," Parras concluded, "that adds thousands of pounds of cancer-causing chemicals to the air."
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Houston, the so-called "energy capital" of the U.S., has been the source of the more worrying anecdotes.
Nayeli Olmos, a Houston resident, told the local Houston Press that she first began noticing the smell Saturday night, around 24 hours after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. She initially thought the stench "would go away on its own, but this morning it was still here, and it feels like whenever it rains the odor gets stronger."
"This pollution will hurt public health in Houston."
—Bakeyah Nelson, Air Alliance Houston
"Our neighbors were all talking about it and then I saw people from different neighborhoods talking about it on social media," Olmos added. "That's when I realized it's not just us this time. It's all over East Houston."
Public Citizen's Stephanie Thomas corroborated Olmos's experience, describing the "powerful" smell as "like burnt rubber with a hint of something metallic thrown in."
These reports have been met with serious alarm by scientists and environmentalists, who have concluded that the pollution resulting from Hurrican Harvey will have lasting effects.
"This pollution will hurt public health in Houston," said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. "When petrochemical plants prepare for storms, they release thousands of pounds of pollutants into the air...It is a stark reminder of the dangers of living near industry. We urge everyone to stay safe."