Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

The Toxic Risk When Hurricanes Hit the Texas Chemical Coast

Courtesy US Coast Guard

In 2008, Hurricane Ike damaged tanks at petroleum facilities along the Houston Ship Channel.

It was their fear and they had a name for it: toxic gumbo. It seemed fitting as officials braced for Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

What would be left in the water and soil after Katrina’s storm surge flooded New Orleans, a city known for its Cajun cuisine but also home to petrochemical plants, refineries and EPA Superfund sites?

“That very word was used, toxic gumbo, and there certainly were issues,” said Danny Reible, an environmental researcher at the University of Texas.

And yet, after studying the results of tests run on floodwater, soil and sediment, Reible wrote in a research article that “By and large…the environmental problems in the city are not significantly different now from environmental conditions before Hurricane Katrina.”

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Patrick Louchouarn at Texas A&M at Galveston studies what risk Superfund sites pose to the ecosystem

Reible wrote that EPA teams “concluded that inorganic and organic chemical concentrations in the floodwaters were generally below levels of concern for short-term” skin contact and even “incidental ingestion.”

Not that there weren’t problems. In one neighborhood, 1,700 homes were “oiled” when over a million gallons of crude escaped after Katrina lifted and ruptured the big tank at an oil refinery. Crews were able to recover a good portion of the oil according to the EPA.

A Researcher’s Worst Nightmare

But what about the long-term impact of a big storm on the Texas coast with all its chemical plants, refineries and toxic waste sites? It worries Patrick Louchouarn, a scientist at Texas A&M at Galveston.

“My worst nightmare is the release of these contaminants that right now tend to be sequestered in environments that are not too mobile,” Louchouarn told StateImpact.

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

One of the nation's newest future Superfund sites is the U.S. Oil Recovery facility in Pasadena. Regulators say over 200 bins hold chemical waste. Rainwater has already carried arsenic and mercury to nearby Vince Bayou, according to the EPA.

He’s talking about contaminated land including Superfund sites of which there are over a dozen along the Texas Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi to Beaumont. The dangerously contaminated lots are in varying stages of remediation, some with tons of toxic waste still stored on them (see photo at right).

Think of the sites as buildings with asbestos insulation buried behind their walls; as long as it stays there, no big deal. But knock a wall down, and suddenly you’ve released a toxic threat.

In the case of hurricane-driven waters washing over and churning up soil and sediment, Louchouarn worries that the contamination will be dislodged and eventually consumed. At some Superfund sites there are signs warning people not to eat the fish from nearby waterways. The sites are along shorelines and one is even partially submerged in a river.

“In the long-term what we fail to realize is that when you have these major disturbances you reintroduce these long-lived contaminants that can stay in the environment and get into the food chain over decades.”

Correction: Photo captions in this post earlier stated that Hurricane Ike occurred in 2005, which is incorrect. The hurricane struck in September 2008.

Dave Fehling / StateImact

Marcus Woodring at the Port of Houston talks in our RADIO STORY about the wrath of Hurricane Ike in 2008.


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