By Todd Shields and Jennifer A Dlouhy
Harvey has moved on from the U.S. Gulf Coast, leaving behind a toxic stew of human sewage, dead cattle, leaking chemical plants, spilled gasoline storage tanks and abandoned pickup trucks.
The cleanup will take patience, billions of dollars and fleets of heavy gear to clear acres of muck and enough debris to fill hundreds of football stadiums in effort overseen by federal and state authorities.
“When the flood waters recede is when you really have to look at the damage,” Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview. “It’s going to take considerable time.”
Refineries are spewing pollutants as they restart. Homeowners risk dangerous mold and contamination from household chemicals. And there’s a heightened threat from a dozen or more polluted Superfund locations around Houston that may have been under Harvey’s water.
Scores of people have been confirmed dead in one of the costliest natural disasters in the country’s history. On Friday, many areas in Texas and Louisiana remained inaccessible and rescues continued as more than 21,000 federal staff worked on relief efforts, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The American Red Cross had more than 2,000 disaster workers on the ground, and more than 38,000 people sought refuge in shelters.
The parts of Texas slammed by Hurricane Harvey are host to more than 400 chemical and plastics plants and oil and gas refineries. In Crosby, a chemical plant owned by Arkema SA was hit by explosions after floods knocked out power supplies needed to refrigerate volatile chemicals. The EPA flew a chemical-sniffing plane in the area and said it didn’t find toxic concentrations away from the facility.
“We will consider using any authority we have to further address the situation to protect human health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in an emailed statement.
The White House is considering an initial $5.95 billion disaster aid funding request to Congress, with $5.5 billion to the U.S. emergency management agency and the remainder to the Small Business Administration, according to two administration officials.
Residential flood insurance losses from Hurricane Harvey are estimated to reach between $6.5 billion and $9.5 billion, with most of that drawn from the government-backed National Flood Insurance Program, according to the property data and analytics firm CoreLogic Inc./United States.
More than 311,000 Texans had already applied for federal disaster relief funds as of Thursday and more than $530 million already had been granted, Vice President Mike Pence said. About 100,000 homes were damaged by the storm, White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said in a briefing.
Texas and U.S. officials have warned residents to stay away from smoke plumes and flood water. Leslie Fields, director of environmental justice with the Sierra Club, ticked off a list of hazards, including dead animals in flood water, gasoline from sunken cars, and potentially leaks from a former paper plant that contains cancer-causing dioxin.
“It’s a bad situation,” said Fields. “This water is some of the worst ever.”
Refineries generate extra pollution as they shut down and then turn back on, much as a cold automobile can spew clouds if it’s started after sitting idle for a time, according to Elena Craft, a senior health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. That’s led to 2 million pounds of emissions in Texas since Aug. 23, the equivalent of 40 percent of last year’s total, according to state records, Craft said.
“We don’t really know what communities might have been exposed to,” Craft said. “Their risk is, overall, increased.”
Pollution already lying in and under the ground in Superfund sites — heavily contaminated places tagged by the EPA for cleanup — can be spread by floodwaters, said McCarthy, the agency’s former administrator.
“You can’t contain contaminants in a flooded area,” McCarthy said. “EPA’s going to have to go back and look at those areas to see what’s happened with existing contamination, as well as look at whatever new Superfund sites are being created now.”
The EPA examined 41 of these sites and found flooding and possible storm damage at 13 of them, according to an agency statement. Floodwaters prevented response personnel from visiting all but two of those areas, and teams are in place to investigate the damage as soon as it’s safe to do so, the statement said.
The top task is to restore water treatment facilities, said the Environmental Defense Fund’s Craft.
Flooding swamped municipal water pumps in Beaumont, Texas, leaving the city of more than 100,000 people without access to drinking water. Across the stricken area, 22 wastewater treatment plants were inoperable due to flooding and power outages, according to a list maintained by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a state regulator. It listed 53 inoperable public drinking water systems.
Crews will flock to the Gulf Coast to help with the cleanup, and companies will need to establish camps with trailers, generators and showers to accommodate them, said Jody Cordaro, chief executive officer of SCE Environmental Group Inc., a Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania-based contractor that cleans up after environmental disasters.
Workers will use an armada of gear including small loaders to clean streets, trucks with grappling hooks to lift debris from curbside, and giant grinders to chew through muck that can contain trees and housing remnants. “I would venture to say that every piece of heavy equipment in Texas is already accounted for and rented,” Cordaro said.
Some of the waste will be riddled with fuel and other contaminants, and will need to be trucked to landfills that could be several states away, Cordaro said.
Cordaro’s company sent 200 workers to help clean up after Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey and New York in 2012.
They stayed on the job for more than seven months.
“I think this cleanup is going to be significantly longer,” he said.
Chemical spills and runoff unleashed by Harvey could disproportionately affect people of color and the poor, including residents living in the shadow of southeast Texas refineries.
“Refineries and petrochemical operations in Houston, almost too numerous to count, have been venting a toxic mix of hazardous air pollutants those trapped by rising floodwaters are forced to breath,” Michele Roberts, co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, a policy group, said in an email. “The long-term health consequences of this toxic air pollution are unknown.”