Houston residents breathe in toxic fumes as petrochemical facilities cope with Harvey

Refineries exceeded state pollutant limits as they shut down.

People watch heavy rain from a flooded gas station caused by Tropical Storm Harvey on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
People watch heavy rain from a flooded gas station caused by Tropical Storm Harvey on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Officials in the city of Houston, known as the energy capital of the United States, are closely monitoring the region’s oil and gas infrastructure as floodwaters from tropical storm Harvey show no signs of receding anytime soon.

Leaks and burn-offs from the numerous petrochemical facilities are posing harm to residents who must breathe in toxic fumes as they struggle to cope with the rising flood waters. Through Monday morning, locations near Houston in Harris County, Texas, had seen up 35 inches of rain, and isolated areas to the northeast up to 40 inches. The city is facing likely “catastrophic” flooding through Wednesday.

Hundreds of oil and gas companies are headquartered in Houston and its suburbs. The city also is home to physical infrastructure for refining, importing, and exporting energy products. The Houston Ship Channel serves as a main conduit for ships and barges seeking access from the Gulf of Mexico to the petrochemical facilities and storage tanks that line the miles-long channel.

Exxon Mobil’s massive Baytown refinery, located on the Houston Ship Channel, had its 560,500-barrel-per-day capacity reduced on Saturday. Several units of the refinery, the second-largest in the United States, were out of production by early Sunday. In fact, most of the refineries in the region have gone into shutdown mode, forcing them to burn off excess chemicals. This weekend, residents noticed strong chemical odors, from east Houston all the way across to the city’s downtown area.


When refineries go into shutdown mode, “it’s a dirty burn” and “you can see the black smoke,” Bryan Parras, an organizer with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (Tejas), told Democracy Now! “That adds thousands of pounds of cancer causing chemicals to the air,” he said. Tejas is a nonprofit group that works on issues with communities located next to industrial facilities.

Other facilities that were shut down include Valero Energy’s refineries in Corpus Christi and Three Rivers, Texas, and Koch Industries’ Flint Hills Resources’ facility in Corpus Christi.

The Texas Council on Environmental Quality reportedly shut down all of its air quality monitors in the Houston area to avoid water and wind damage related to the storm. “In other words, plants and refineries are being left on the honor system. The facilities can report whatever is emitted, but if they do not do so, “there are not any state air quality monitors running to catch them,” the Houston Press reported Monday.

The University of Texas School of Public Health released a study 10 years ago that identified a possible link between cancer risks and hazardous air pollutants being emitted by industrial facilities along the Houston Ship Channel. The study said children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel had a 56 percent higher risk of contracting leukemia than children living more than 10 miles from the channel.

Residents who live along the Houston Ship Channel have grown accustomed to foul smells coming from the industrial facilities located in their communities. But the smells late Saturday night were even too much for local residents to handle. They later found out that the same smell had covered all of East Houston.


The shutdown of petrochemical plants in the region is expected to send more than 1 million pounds of harmful pollution into air, the nonprofit Air Alliance Houston said Monday.

“Harvey is… a threat to the air we breathe,” Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said in a release, the Houston Press reported. “When petrochemical plants prepare for storms, they release thousands of pounds of pollutants into the air. This pollution will hurt public health in Houston.”

The San Jacinto waste pits site near Houston consists of impoundments dug near the San Jacinto River in the 1960s to hold toxic waste from a paper mill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the site to its list of Superfund sites in 2008, after testing revealed contamination near the waste pits. Each time there is a major rain event in Houston, contamination from the Superfund site is spread into communities, further exposing more people.

Tejas will be monitoring the status of these facilities along the Houston Ship Channel in the coming days, Parras told ThinkProgress.


When it was shutting down its refinery in the area, Chevron Phillips told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that it expects to exceed permitted limits for several hazardous pollutants, such as 1,3-butadiene, benzene and ethylene, during shutdown procedures.

On Sunday, lightning from Hurricane Harvey struck a fiberglass crude oil storage tank near Port Arthur, south of Beaumont, next to a state wildlife park. Port Arthur is about a 90-minute drive east of Houston, near the border with Louisiana. The strike sparked a fire, burning two tanks and spilling about five barrels of crude oil and 20 barrels of produced water, according to a Houston Chronicle report.

The tank battery is located across a road from the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area, a 25,000-acre coastal wetlands preserve that is home to muskrat, river otter, mink, bobcat, and many species of fish and birds. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department called Murphree a key nesting area for Mottled Ducks, and home to more American alligators per acre than any other site in Texas.

Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass liquefied natural gas export terminal in Louisiana remained in operation and its liquefied natural gas terminal in Corpus Christi, Texas facility, which had been undergoing construction, so far sustained only minor damage, Platts reported. At Sabine Pass, LNG production operations continued through the storm, Cheniere said. At Corpus Christi, only minor “cosmetic” impacts were found.