Photo Credit: United States Department of Homeland Security, Public Domain
After making landfall in late August, Hurricane Harvey brought with it record rainfall and disastrous wind speeds of 130 mph, making it the worst storm in Texas since 2014. Shortly thereafter, state regulators and government entities collaborated to put a temporary stop to environmental rules deemed barriers to much-needed relief efforts and clean-up. Though federal law allows this to occur, and though one can argue that practicality trumps environmental concerns in the immediate aftermath of major storms, the seemingly opportunistic suspension of regulations is potentially destructive.
On August 28th, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) requested a stay on certain regulations. Not long after, Governor Greg Abbott granted their request. Then he extended the waiver – multiple times. The most recent announcement came on November 20th, several months after the storm struck Texas.
This has led to a situation where over a third of the debris has been disposed of without environmental regulatory guidance. Likewise, a third of Texas’ counties will be subject to four months sans regulations. Heaps and heaps of stuff – furniture, crops, lumber etc. – are just lying there without the oversight of environmental safety regulations.
Missing Chemical Plant Rule
The state government isn’t the only culpable entity. Donald Trump and his acolytes at the EPA put Texans in a bind when they decided to delay the implementation of a chemical plant safety rule written during the Obama administration. That regulation will not go into effect until 2019, and as a result, the chemical plants lining the coast of Texas are at risk.
One plant already suffered under these conditions. The Arkema plant near Houston went into crisis mode on August 31st when flooding did serious damage to the plant’s power source, causing the temperatures to fluctuate in unsafe ways. As a result, two explosions occurred at the facility leading to a leak of toxic airborne fumes.
Arkema made headlines because of the explosions, but other plants – including one owned by Chevron – have also leaked chemicals into the environment. Nearly 30 such plants have submitted reports of leakage to TCEQ. Chevron alone will probably leak 766,000 lbs. of potentially dangerous chemicals.
It’s no wonder then that Houston residents living in so-called fence-line communities have been smelling strong odors emanating from the faltering facilities. Bryan Parras, an activist in Houston, said a few months ago, “I’ve been smelling them all night and off and on this morning,” adding that some people have been experiencing “headaches, sore throat, scratchy throat and itchy eyes.”
According to a report published by the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, chemical leaks and plant explosions disproportionately affect people of color, who are more likely to get sick due to exposure.
When you add floods to the mix, these communities suffer even more. As Parras put it, “Fenceline communities can’t leave or evacuate so they are literally getting gassed by these chemicals.”
So how does the state plan on handling this mess? Without regulations, the cleaning effort has become severely unsafe. The TCEQ listed several potential methods for reducing debris, including recycling, on-site burial, separating and open burning. This latter method is particularly worrying. According to the 2014 disaster debris plan, which says nothing of regulation waivers, “outdoor burning is the least desirable method of volume reduction, as there is no control over how much or how quickly it is allowed to burn and lacks any type of environmental control.”
To make matters worse, regulations preventing the burning of rubber, plastics, electrical insulation and other environmentally suspect materials have been put on hold, meaning local officials are permitted to light their trash ablaze without retribution.
Regulations are necessary, not just in the abstract, but in terms of public health. As environmental expert Deserai Crow put it, “Those laws are there to protect us from chronic long-term or very immediate exposure problems.” She continued, “By suspending environmental laws longer than is a necessity for emergency response during a disaster, we’re doing our communities a huge disservice.”