62-year-old Highlands resident Dwight Chandler, who lives near the flooded Highlands Acid Pit, examines his flood-damaged home. Photo: AP
After a week of storms and high water, Hurricane Harvey has now left at least 43 people in southeast Texas dead. In addition to the damage to infrastructure, property and residents' lives, the possible environmental consequences of the massive flooding in the nation's largest petrochemical complex are just now becoming apparent.
At least five highly contaminated Superfund sites in the Houston area were deluged by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey, the AP reported on Saturday, and Environmental Protection Agency officials contacted by the AP could not immediately provide details on when staff would be able to inspect the sites.
One site, the Highlands Acid Pit, had 22,000 cubic yards of hazardous waste and soil removed in the 1980s, but the EPA considers it a continuing threat to local groundwater, the AP wrote.
"My daddy talks about having bird dogs down there and to run and the acid would eat the pads off their feet," 62-year-old Dwight Chandler, who lives just a few blocks away, said. "We didn't know any better."
A working-class neighbourhood in Crosby, which is less than 48km from downtown Houston, saw flooding in both the French LTD and the Sikes Disposal Pits sites which are located to either side. A sinkhole opened up there on Friday, taking down two cars and filling the air with the scent of creosote, a carbonaceous chemical formed by burning wood, fossil fuels, or tar, the AP reported.
Polluted soil at the Brio Refining Inc. and San Jacinto River Waste Pits appeared to have washed away amid heavy flooding; the latter site was being considered for an $US97 ($122) million EPA cleanup effort.
"If floodwaters have spread the chemicals in the waste pits, then dangerous chemicals like dioxin could be spread around the wider Houston area," TexPIRG researcher Kara Cook-Schultz told the AP. "Superfund sites are known to be the most dangerous places in the country, and they should have been properly protected against flooding."
In addition to the Superfund sites, concern has been raised about numerous active industrial sites in the area which suffered extensive flood damage. That included an Arkema SA petrochemical plant which exploded after company officials said they lost emergency power to cooling systems, making a detonation inevitable. At least two containers containing organic peroxides burned down, with another six likely to follow in the coming days, Click2Houston reported.
Several oil spills have occurred; Denbury Onshore LLC reported losing between 200 to 1,500 barrels of oil in Brazoria County after a storage tank overflowed.
According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services treated some 420 out of 7,500 refugees at Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center, some for "diarrhoea or vomiting that could be associated with a virus or contaminated floodwater."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott warned the reconstruction effort after the storm could be even more lengthy and arduous than cleanup and recovery after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast and particularly the city of New Orleans.
"This is going to be a massive, massive cleanup process," Abbot told ABC's Good Morning America. "People need to understand this is not going to be a short-term project. This is going to be a multiyear project for Texas to be able to dig out of this catastrophe."
As the AP noted, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has publicly called cleaning up Superfund sites a priority even as he has worked to undermine some of the agency's core functions, such as the EPA's role in regulating water and air pollution. The White House's fiscal year 2018 budget request proposed slashing 30 per cent of the Superfund program's funding, while as Gizmodo previously reported, also asking for the elimination of the US Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board.