Chemical burn-offs affect Houston-area residents after Harvey

Updated September 8, 2017 - 11:51 am

GALENA PARK, Texas — 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 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 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.

By volume, most of Harris County’s emissions were sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which break down to fine particles and ozone that all can cause respiratory problems, especially for people with asthma and emphysema, said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a health scientist for environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.

Of the dozen plants in Harris County reporting storm-related emissions, Exxon Mobil, Chevron Phillips and Shell Oil have been fined or ordered to pay settlements totaling $27.8 million since 2010 for violating federal environmental laws after suits by The Sierra Club and Environment Texas. A federal judge ordered Exxon Mobil in May to pay most of it — $19.9 million — for illegal emissions from its Baytown refinery. Exxon Mobil is appealing. The other two companies paid, said Philip Hilder, attorney for the environmental groups.

In heavily Latino lower middle-income communities like Pasadena and Galena Park, which sit along the plant and refinery corridor near Houston’s seaport, some residents complained of feeling sick during Harvey.

Ruben Basurto, who lives two blocks from a petrochemical shipping terminal and refinery, described major flaring as Harvey hit — the burning off of volatile byproducts of petrochemical manufacture that sends flames soaring from plant stacks. The air reeked of natural gas, he said, driving him and his friends inside.

“It still smelled at midweek, more during the night,” said the 33-year-old construction worker.

As the storm closed in, Gov. Greg Abbott decreed the temporary suspension of emissions regulations. The state environmental agency’s director said Texas law could exempt refineries and chemical plants from state fines and liability for extraordinary releases resulting from “an act of God, war, strike, riot, or other catastrophe. “

In Galena Park, mothers in a private Facebook group described sickening odors like “sweet gasoline,” raw sewage and thick air.

Some in the city of 11,000 with a median household income of $43,000 called 911 but police were too busy to respond, said local environmental activist Juan Flores.

“A lot of people are afraid to talk because their husbands work in the plants,” said Flores.

People in the petrochemical corridor should be provided health screening as a next step in Harvey recovery, said Rotkin-Ellman of the environmental group NRDC.

A Harris County pollution control services toxicologist, Latrice Babin, said she was not aware of any special screening.

Sanchez’s headaches still hadn’t gone away on Wednesday. Nor had the sickening smell, she said.

She wants to see a doctor, but like many in her neighborhood, she said, Sanchez currently has no health insurance.

“I don’t even know where I would start.”

ad-high_impact_4
News
Protesters Line Streets for President Trump's Arrival in Las Vegas
Hundreds lined the streets in front of Suncoast to protest President Donald Trump's arrival in Las Vegas. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Thunder Mountain monument stands as a tribute to Native American culture
Caretaker Fred Lewis talks about Thunder Mountain monument in central Nevada, made from concrete and found items. The five-acre site is a tribute to Native Peoples of the West. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New CCSD superintendent Jesus F. Jara aims for 1st in the nation
On his third day as Clark County School District superintendent, Jesus F. Jara talks about his vision for the future during a visit to Del Sol Academy of the Performing Arts on Thursday, June 21, 2018, in Las Vegas. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Ceremony Recognizes Refugee Students, Graduates
Rosy Mibulano, a graduate of Las Vegas High School who came to America from the Congo in 2015, was recognized in a ceremony for refugee students in Clark County. Like many other students relocated to Las Vegas from countries around the world, Rosy had a challenging high school experience, from learning English to adjusting to American customs and taking care of her family. On top of that, she wants to go to school to become a nurse so she can take care of her mother, who suffers from diabetes. The annual Refugee Recognition Ceremony celebrates the enormous lengths these young adults go through to create a new life for themselves. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Paul McCartney is worth over $1 billion
Sir Paul McCartney is one of the most celebrated and accomplished musicians in history. He just turned 76 on June 18. McCartney grew to international fame with the Beatles and went on to become a wildly successful solo musician. Paul McCartney’s net worth is estimated at $1.2 billion, according to Celebrity Net Worth. In 2017, McCartney landed the No. 13 spot on Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid musicians, earning $54 million for the year. On Thursday, June 20, McCartney will release a double A-side single featuring two new songs, "I Don't Know" and "Come On to Me." McCartney has yet to announce a title of his new album or when it will be released. Th album is expected to be released before he headlines the Austin City Limits Music fest in October.
Water leak at Mandalay Bay convention center
The convention center area of Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas experienced major flooding Tuesday afternoon. Credit: Melinda Cook
Hollywood Memorabilia Up For Grabs at Las Vegas Auction
Elvis Presley's car, Marilyn Monroe's bras, Han Solo's blaster, and Jerry Lewis's "Nutty Professor" suit are just some of the items that are up for auction at Julien's Auctions at Planet Hollywood June 22 and 23. The auction's viewing room at Planet Hollywood is open to the public 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Saturday at Planet Hollywood. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Indoor farming in Southern Nevada
Experts discuss Nevada's indoor farming industry. (Bailey Schulz/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former Fontainebleau could have become a Waldorf Astoria
Months after developer Steve Witkoff bought the Fontainebleau last summer, he unveiled plans to turn the mothballed hotel into a Marriott-managed resort called The Drew. But if Richard “Boz” Bosworth’s plans didn’t fall through, the north Las Vegas Strip tower could have become a Waldorf Astoria with several floors of timeshare units. (Eli Segall/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Springs Preserve Exhibit Shows Off "Nature's Ninjas"
"Nature's Ninjas" arrives at the Springs Preserve, in an exhibit and live show featuring critters that come with natural defenses, from armadillos to snakes, poison dart frogs to scorpions and tarantulas (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CrossRoads of Southern Nevada psychiatric urgent care to open in Las Vegas
Jeff Iverson, who operates the nonprofit sober living facility Freedom House, is opening a private addiction treatment center that will operate a detoxification center and transitional living for substance users trying to recover. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Metro Capt. Jaime Prosser gives update of officer-involved shooting
Metro Capt. Jaime Prosser provides an update about an officer-involved shooting at Radwick Drive and Owens Avenue in the northeast Las Vegas on Thursday. A robbery suspect was shot and killed. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Wayne Newton surprises burglars
Wayne Newton and his wife, Kathleen, arrived at their southeast Las Vegas home shortly before midnight on Wednesday to find two burglars inside their house. The burglars fled and were seen heading north through the property. Las Vegas police quickly set up a perimeter and launched an extensive search of the area, but the suspects were able to escape. It was unclear if the burglars got away with anything of value. Several items, under the watchful eyes of the police, were seen on the ground near the home's main driveway. Neither Newton, nor his wife, were injured. The Newtons were not available for comment.
Police Officers Turn Off Body Cameras
In four separate body camera videos from the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting released Wednesday, officers in a strike team are instructed to turn their body cameras off and comply with the request.
Debra Saunders reports from Singapore
Las Vegas Review-Journal White House correspondent talks about the historic summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.
How long will North Korea's denuclearization take?
In Singapore, Las Vegas Review-Journal White House correspondent Debra Saunders asks President Donald Trump how long North Korea's denuclearization will take. White House video.
LVCVA purchase of gift cards hidden
A former LVCVA executive hid the purchase of $90,000 in Southwest Airlines gift cards in records at the agency. Brig Lawson, the senior director of business partnerships, said the money was for promotional events and did not disclose that it was for gift cards. Lawson also instructed Southwest employees to submit invoices without mentioning the purchases were for the cards. More than $50,000 of the cards cannot be accounted for. The convention authority is publicly funded . Lawson recently resigned.
Kim Jong Un visits Marina Bay Sands in Singapore
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his entourage visited the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore briefly Monday night, local time. (Video by Philip Chope)
Coca-Cola Bottle Purse Has 9,888 Diamonds
Designer Kathrine Baumann and jeweler Aaron Shum set the Guinness World Record for most diamonds (9,888) set on a handbag. The Coca Cola bottle-shaped purse was on display at the Coca Cola Store on the Strip. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sentosa Island a pleasure resort with a pirate past
The site of Tuesday's U.S.-North Korea summit is known for theme parks and resorts. But before that, it was known as a pirate island. (Debra Saunders/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Judge Sandra Pomrenze's comment about girl's hair
Nevada Races Full of Women From Both Sides
It's already been a historic election season for women in politics. Record numbers of women are running for political office all over the country - including Nevada. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
East Las Vegas home damaged by fire
Clark County Fire Department crews responded to a house fire in east Las Vegas Thursday morning. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
911 call: Mom tries to get to son shot at Route 91
A woman stuck on the interstate during the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting on Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas, tries to get to her son. 911 call released by Las Vegas police.
Las Vegas 911 caller reports people shot on Oct. 1
A 911 caller on Oct. 1, 2017, reports several people shot at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas.
911 call from woman under stage in Las Vegas shooting
A 911 call from a woman underneath the stage at the Route 91 Harvest festival during the Oct. 1, 2017, Las Vegas shooting.
LVCVA facing scandal over gift cards
LVCVA is facing a growing scandal over airline gift cards. LVCVA bought $90,000 in Southwest Airline gift cards between 2012 and 2017. Now auditors can’t account for more than $50,000 of the cards. CEO Rossi Ralenkotter and his family used $16,207 in gift cards on 56 trips. Brig Lawson, the senior director of business partnerships, was responsible for buying and distributing the cards. He recently resigned.
Siblings separated in the foster care system get a day together
St. Jude's Ranch for Children and Cowabunga Bay Cares program partnered to bring 75 siblings together for the day to play on the water slides and in the pools at the Henderson water park. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
People flee the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1, 2017
Las Vegas police released footage from a camera on Mandalay Bay of the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1, 2017
Aaliyah Inghram awarded medal of courage
Aaliyah Inghram, a 10-year-old girl who was shot while protecting her 18-month-old brother and 4-year-old cousin during a shooting on May 8, awarded medal of courage. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
ad-infeed_1
ads_infeed_2
Local Spotlight
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like