By Byran Parras, Sierra Club
For as long as I can recall, the more than 400 chemical plants and oil and gas refineries that litter my community weren’t just an eyesore, as some may see them, they were the cause of hardship, of sickness, and even of death, polluting our air and dumping toxins into our water. Hurricane Harvey and the destruction it brought with it only magnified this threat. I’ve seen the black smoke burning off from these deadly and dangerous plants, I’ve smelled the oil and chemicals, and I know the fear that strikes so many of our communities on a daily basis. On normal rain events, we know that these facilities, which are decades old, have situations where they have to shutdown to prevent and avoid these catastrophic explosions and events. As you can imagine, Harvey is only making this worse.
Hurricane Harvey has already dumped more than 9 trillion gallons of water, enough water to fill the Great Salt Lake in Salt Lake City twice. Entire highways in Houston are now underwater. Since the storm struck, there have been more than a dozen chemical facilities and oil refineries that have reported serious issues, including leaks, spills, and potential explosions. These facilities, along with Superfund sites, are littered throughout my community.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center, there were more than 30 calls reporting spilled gasoline, crude oil, petroleum, and the release of contaminants from flare stacks in communities affected by Hurricane Harvey on Tuesday alone.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing at the moment is that we simply don’t know what’s happening at these facilities. The monitors have been shut down, workers, understandably, have fled the toxic sites, and the only way we can really know what’s happening is when we see it or smell it. Petrochemical companies are expected to report emissions of pollutants to nearby communities like mine, which are largely minority and low-income. This temporary self-reporting could leave us uninformed about potentially dangerous pollutants in their air.
There’s a reason these facilities are located so close to my home, to the schools in my community, and to my public places. It’s because I live in a community of color. Environmental racism has been occurring across our country for generations, and Houston is perhaps one of the clearest examples. When you walk through West Houston, a predominantly white community, you won’t see refineries, or chemical plants, or smokestacks, but when you crossover into East Houston, where I live, you’ll see them everywhere.
The environmental crimes against my community and thousands more like it have been happening for decades. In April, a federal judge ruled that Exxon must pay nearly $20 million in civil penalties for “serious” violations at the Baytown refinery, that caused the release of about 10 million pounds of pollutants into the atmosphere. The judge ruled that Exxon violated the Clean Air Act 16,386 times between October 2005 and September 2013.
This very refinery is currently leaking from Harvey’s storm damage. It’s clear, superstorms like Harvey only heighten the threats we face.
As the clouds clear and the sun returns, and we begin to think about rebuilding, we must ensure that the recovery is just and equitable, and ensures communities are not displaced nor threatened by these toxic sites ever again, no matter the weather.
You can see a detailed map of the more than 400 toxic facilities strewn throughout the region devastated by Harvey here.