Experts say Hurricane Harvey unleashes toxic gumbo into Texas waterways

Updated 2017-09-25 18:01:11 Xinhua

When it comes to major storms, Hurricane Harvey was an ecological worst-case scenario as it unleashed a deadly gumbo of chemicals and carcinogens into waterways in the southern U.S. state of Texas, according to experts.

While the Houston area dodged the brunt of Harvey's most destructive winds, the catastrophic flooding over a four-day period wreaked havoc on neighborhoods and waterways.

Some areas received more than 1 meter of rain after the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm on Aug. 25. The floods inundated hundreds of thousands of homes and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

With that much flooding, the stakes are high for the Texas Gulf Coast that houses roughly 30 percent of the proven oil reserves in the United States. The plants and refineries that line Galveston Bay are home to much of the nation's petroleum refining, ethylene and chemical production, and jet fuel.

The plants and refineries took a big hit from the storm, releasing deadly chemicals into the Houston Ship Channel and other Houston-area waterways, an expert told Xinhua.

Danny Reible, professor of Chemical Engineering at the Texas Tech University in Lubbock, expressed concern of such a catastrophe at the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

The concern is that "major storm events might cause exposure of contaminated sites or landfills with contaminated materials, or that a chemical facility might be damaged by a storm," said Reible.

Texas is home to 53 federal Superfund sites that have been placed on the National Priorities List. A Superfund site is any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and the environment.

"Of the 13 federal Superfund sites flooded by Hurricane Harvey, federal officials have not yet inspected eight of those sites," said Kara Cook-Schultz, toxics program director for TexPIRG, a group that advocates for consumer safety. "Also, the Environmental Protection Agency has not officially cleared the sites that have been visually inspected," he said.

Cook-Schultz took issue with Texas Governor Greg Abbott's comments that state and federal inspections of hazardous waste sites and landfills in the Houston area had found no evidence so far of any leakage.

Of the 13 Superfund sites of concern, two stand out and need immediate testing of nearby areas, according to TexPIRG. The San Jacinto Waste Pits, located on the San Jacinto River, holds toxic sludge deposited at the site from a nearby paper mill in the 1960s. The site contains dioxin, a known carcinogen.

And the Highlands Acid Pits in Harris County contains unknown toxic sludge from oil and gas that includes sulfuric acid, which causes breathing problems and can kill fish and other animals. Due to the sandy nature of the soil, the toxic waste has previously spread to at least one nearby aquifer.

Jim Blackburn, professor in the practice of environmental law at Rice University in Houston, points to climate change as the reason for the more intense hurricanes.

"Tropical Storm Harvey went from a tropical cyclone overnight almost to a Category 4 storm, and that was because of the heat of the Gulf of Mexico," he said, "Hurricanes and tropical storms are fed by the heat of the oceans. The Gulf of Mexico is one of the hottest water bodies in the world."

"Our storms are getting fed more heat and there's going to be stronger storms because of that," Blackburn said.

"It's hard to predict which storms, it's hard to predict where, it's hard to say that any one storm was a climate-related storm, but the pattern is clear. They're getting more serious," he said.

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