Earth Matters: Post-hurricane environmental issues also concerning

The human, social and financial costs of storms like Harvey and Irma are staggering. But the environmental concerns are also serious and persist long after the initial flood-water recedes.

Floodwater contains a myriad of sewage, trash and industrial chemicals, which are themselves a serious health concern. Emergency management and health department officials told residents to stay out of the water as much as they could. But that was easier said than done as people tried to escape to safety.

Houston has struggled with sewage overflows even during much more modest precipitation events. Like many other Ameri­can cities, stormwater finds its way into sanitary sewers, sometimes overloading the system and releasing raw sewage into waterways. The possibility of water-borne disease connected with the storm becomes a serious concern.

Separate from its migration into the sewer system, Houston and its environs have not managed stormwater particularly well and have been criticized for a lack of planning and land-use regulation. Developers have enjoyed this “anything-goes” approach to urban development and large tracts of buildings, pavement and other impervious surfaces have spread far and wide.

It’s a challenge to manage runoff under normal circumstances because the region is coastal plain, not far above sea level. Fifty inches of rain and a long history of mediocre stormwater management was sure to magnify the effects of the flooding.

The nature of Houston’s industrial base magnified the dangers in the water, too. The center of the oil refinery industry and home to a number of petrochemical manufacturers and hazardous waste generators, the floodwaters included the by-products of those industries, too.

To add insult to injury, the Houston area is also home to more than two dozen federal Superfund toxic waste sites. Few of the sites are completely secure, and it seems likely their legacy pollutants would have migrated into the floodwaters. An astounding variety of persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic and carcinogenic chemicals can still be found in these old dumps and facilities.

The danger associated with hazardous materials was not limited to the floodwaters. Several facilities manufacture or utilize chemicals that are unstable at higher temperatures. Refrigeration systems designed to keep such chemicals at lower, and more stable, temperatures were unable to operate when both traditional and back-up electricity failed. The explosions released a toxic stew of chemicals separate from those in the water.

Long before the storm, the chemical and petroleum industries in Texas had lobbied for less stringent regulations. (The Center for Responsive Politics reported the oil and gas industry has contributed nearly $100 million to the Texas Congressional delegation in the past six years.) Some critics believe the less robust regulatory climate contributed to greater industrial chemical emissions from the storm.

Once the water finally subsides, the trash left in the wake of the storm can be overwhelming. Some officials first proposed burning large amounts of the waste. But concerns over the release of additional toxic air emissions and successful recycling experiences in other disasters prompted a more serious recycling effort.

While the rainfall was unprecedented, it would seem Houston’s long-term aversion to regulations and land development planning made the bad situation worse. Let’s hope we might learn from some of those mistakes.

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