Houston’s toxic Superfund sites are underwater and leaking

Meanwhile, the EPA's budget for emergencies has gone down.

Conception Casa, center, and his friend Jose Martinez, right, check on Rhonda Worthington after her car became stuck in rising floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas. CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero
Conception Casa, center, and his friend Jose Martinez, right, check on Rhonda Worthington after her car became stuck in rising floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas. CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero

At least 20 people have died and hundreds of thousands have been evacuated in unprecedented flooding this week in and around Houston, Texas. Federal officials have already said that recovery from Hurricane Harvey will take years.

Houston is the heart of the Gulf Coast oil industry. The so-called “chemical coast” is home to numerous petrochemical refineries and processing plants. As such, it is also home to more than a dozen Superfund sites — areas of serious toxic pollution designated by the EPA to need remediation.

CREDIT: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
Current and former Superfund sites located in Harris County, Texas. CREDIT: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

After Harvey, though, many of those sites have gone underwater.

Overflowing drainage locations in Houston over the weekend. CREDIT: Harris County

The risk to people and the environment is both immediate and long-term. Kids are reportedly swimming in waters that might be passing through Superfund sites or state-designated toxic sites. But even after the flood waters subside, it’s impossible to know how far the toxins may have spread.

“If the water picks up contaminated sediment from sites, that may get deposited in areas where people frequent — residential properties, parks, ballfields — that were never contaminated before. We can’t say for sure it will happen, but it’s certainly a possibility,” Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, told the Washington Post.

The water could also leach into groundwater sources from nearby wells.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is planning to overhaul the Superfund program. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt — who has decided to personally lead the program — says his approach will reduce costs and speed clean-up, but a task force report from July offered such vague recommendations as “Establishing an ‘Administrator’s Top Ten’ list which will get his weekly attention” and “Finishing sites where construction is completed or nearly completed in order to transition the site from ‘Remedial Action’ to ‘Ready for Reuse’ to Deletion, as appropriate.”

And — along with many other EPA programs — the Superfund program is facing significant budgetary cuts if the Trump administration has its way. The EPA’s proposed budget cut total Superfund cleanup funding by $330 million dollars, a more than 30 percent reduction. The program had already been cut from FY16 to FY17, so the proposed new budget is less than two-thirds what it was two years ago.

CREDIT: FY 2018 EPA Budget in Brief
CREDIT: FY 2018 EPA Budget in Brief

The program’s emergency response funding, critical before and after events such as Houston’s flooding, has also been cut by 30 percent over the past two years.

New toxins transmitted via water and air also present serious public health risks to Houston residents. At least one of ExxonMobil’s local oil refineries was damaged and leaked chemicals. Another damaged plant released large volumes of sulphuric acid into the air.