Hurricane Harvey Triggers Chemical Clouds over Houston: Climate Deniers Close Ranks
August 28, 2017
The New Republic & Ellie Shechet / The Slot
There are huge public health risks from pollution releases during any hurricane, but the risk is particularly high with Harvey. The plants in the area hit directly by the storm "are responsible for roughly 25 percent of the United States' petroleum refining, more than 44 percent of its ethylene production, 40 percent of its specialty chemical feed stock and more than half of its jet fuel."
"Unbearable" Petrochemical Smells Are Reportedly Drifting into Houston
The New Republic
(August 27, 2017) -- As historic rainfall and flooding continue to pound America's fourth-most populated city, residents of Houston's industrial fence-line communities are reporting strong gas- and chemical-like smells coming from the many refineries and chemical plants nearby.
"I've been smelling them all night and off and on this morning," said Bryan Parras, an activist at the grassroots environmental justice group TEJAS. Parras, who lives and works in Houston's East End, on Sunday said some residents are experiencing "headaches, sore throat, scratchy throat and itchy eyes."
Parras said there are chemical smells in the air all over the East End, but particularly in directly communities adjacent to Houston's sweeping petrochemical industry. And residents can't escape the smell, because flood waters have overtaken the city, and could reach over four feet in some spots. "Fenceline communities can't leave or evacuate so they are literally getting gassed by these chemicals," Parras said.
Some Twitter users in Houston also reported concerns about air quality.
It's still unclear exactly where the smells are coming from, but Parras suspects the source is the many oil refineries, chemical plants, and gas facilities nearby. Several of these plants have shut down or are in the process of shutting down due to Harvey's historic flooding, and shutdowns are a major cause of "abnormal" emission events, according to a 2012 report from the Environmental Integrity Project.
Short-term impacts of these events can be "substantial," because "upsets or sudden shutdowns can release large plumes of sulfur dioxide or toxic chemicals in just a few hours, exposing downwind communities to peak levels of pollution that are much more likely to trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory systems." The communities closest to these sites in Houston are disproportionately low-income and minority.
There are huge public health risks from pollution releases during any hurricane, but the risk is particularly high with Harvey. The plants in the area hit directly by the storm "are responsible for roughly 25 percent of the United States' petroleum refining, more than 44 percent of its ethylene production, 40 percent of its specialty chemical feed stock and more than half of its jet fuel," according to the New York Times.
On Sunday, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke -- fresh off a bizarrely off-topic mid-hurricane Twitter endorsement from President Donald Trump -- hit out at liberals for "politicizing" Hurricane Harvey. But disaster preparedness is always political, and so is environmental justice. As noxious fumes creep over the fence-line communities of the East End, residents there are underwater, and some of them can't breathe.
'Whoa!': Climate Change-Denying Politicians
React to Hurricane Harvey
Ellie Shechet / The Slot
(August 28, 2017) -- Hurricane Harvey has been called a "500-year" event, Houston's third such flooding event in as many years. On Monday, FEMA Administrator William "Brock" Long said that Harvey could push as many as 30,000 people into shelters, with as many as 450,000 estimated to seek disaster assistance.
The storm is being referred to as "historic" and "unprecedented," like the fires that raged across the Southeastern US last fall, the flooding that inundated Louisiana and West Virginia last summer, the record-setting Winter Storm Jonas earlier last winter, and the years-long drought that California only recently recovered from.
Penn State professor and climate change researcher Michael Mann, who led a recent study that found a human "fingerprint" on extreme weather events, wrote in The Guardian on Monday that while it's impossible to say whether climate change "caused" Harvey, "[t]here are certain climate change-related factors that we can, with great confidence, say worsened the flooding" in Texas.
Sea level rise attributable to climate change -- some of which is due to coastal subsidence caused by human disturbance such as oil drilling -- is more than half a foot (15cm) over the past few decades (see here for a decent discussion). That means the storm surge was half a foot higher than it would have been just decades ago, meaning far more flooding and destruction.
In addition to that, sea surface temperatures in the region have risen about 0.5C (close to 1F) over the past few decades from roughly 30C (86F) to 30.5C (87F), which contributed to the very warm sea surface temperatures (30.5-31C, or 87-88F).
Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average temperatures, which translates to 1-1.5C warmer than "average" temperatures a few decades ago. That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.
That large amount of moisture creates the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding.
Anyway! Totally unrelatedly, here's an incomplete list of public officials who seem taken aback by Harvey's magnitude, alongside a few things they've said in the past.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
2014, via CNN: "The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that, that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn't happened."
August 2017, via Talking Points Memo:
"We've been seeing resources pouring into the region both from the state of Texas and at the federal level, but this is a 500-year flood, and Harvey is predicted to stay here and keep dumping a significant amount of water on the region," he said on Fox News Sunday, using the term often coined by governmental officials to describe a flood of exceptional vastness.
He also expressed shock over photos and videos of flooding he had seen of parts of the region, like at major airports. "At least one of the runways was completely underwater. It looked like a lake. I've never seen anything like it," he said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)
2009, via cornyn.senate.gov:
"Taxpayer funded research by NASA and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) concerning the warmest years on record has been the subject of dispute and after challenges, has been changed and re-released.
"What is less known is why the changes were made and what inherent flaws existed in the original data, if any. It is important to understand the reasons behind these alterations and further to avoid suspicion that data was massaged to fit the prescribed theory that global warming is attributable to man-made greenhouse gas emissions."
2015, via National Review:
Studies suggest that strict limits on human-driven CO2 emissions would have a negligible effect globally -- particularly if emissions from developing economies like China and India continue to rise. In other words, while failing to significantly move the climate needle, new burdensome regulations would hinder our economy and hurt our most vulnerable, raising utility bills for those on fixed incomes and increasing costs to small businesses.
[. . .]
While climate models fail, America's entrepreneurial minds have shown time and again that they are simply more adaptive and ingenious than government regulators and bureaucrats. When the government tries to play savior, we find that overbearing, intrusive Washington "solutions" do far more harm than good. Let's instead promote innovation-driven answers that fit the diverse needs of consumers, businesses, and a growing economy alike.
Donald J. Trump
In the 1950's our climate was far more unstable than it has been over the last 5 years.
Where's the global warming? 2013 was one of the least extreme years in weather on record http://bit.ly/1c2xgzl
Do you believe this one -- Secretary of State John Kerry just stated that the most dangerous weapon of all today is climate change. Laughable
* Great coordination between agencies at all levels of government. Continuing rains and flash floods are being dealt with. Thousands rescued.
* Many people are now saying that this is the worst storm/hurricane they have ever seen. Good news is that we have great talent on the ground.
* Wow -- Now experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500 year flood! We have an all out effort going, and going well!
* HISTORIC rainfall in Houston, and all over Texas. Floods are unprecedented, and more rain coming. Spirit of the people is incredible. Thanks!
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
2014, via San Antonio Express-News:
"As a matter of historical fact, the climate changes. Long before fossil fuel was ever discovered and used on a large-scale industrial basis, the earth's climate changed substantially on numerous occasions. However, many scientists believe that certain human activities impact the climate.
"Others dispute the extent to which any activity has a particular level of influence on the climate, which is why this matter needs to continue to be investigated. We must be good guardians of our Earth, but we must base our decisions on peer-reviewed scientific inquiry, free from political demagogues using climate change as an excuse to remake the American economy."
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas)
2015, via CNS News:
"In fact, within the Department of Homeland Security, more money, in fact, millions of dollars, are dedicated to climate change rather than combating what I consider to be one of the biggest threats to the homeland, and that's the violent extremists radicalizing Islamist terrorists -- radicalizing over the internet, in the United States of America."
August 2017, via Dallas News:
Austin Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview with Fox News on Friday that Hurricane Harvey and its projected rainfall is "one of the more serious events" seen in Texas, with "historic proportions."
And he warned of the risk to Houston's shipping channel and Corpus Christi's oil refineries, in particular, calling damage to the energy operations, which serve large swaths of the U.S., a "worst case scenario."
Secretary of Energy/Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry
2010, via Washington Post:
Mr. Perry has a long record on climate change, railing about "doctored data" and "so-called science." "It's all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight," he declared. "Al Gore is a prophet all right, a false prophet of a secular carbon cult." These were not one-off, casual comments. They were in his 2010 book, "Fed Up!"
Rep. Clay Higgins (R-Louisiana)
2016, via Captain Higgins for Congress:
Louisiana's coast is eroding . . . but not because of oil companies. Throughout history, the Louisiana marshland was replenished by river sediments -- land-building deposits derived from the Mississippi River overflowing its banks.
But in the early 1900s, a decision was made to levee the river as we know it today. So for the last 80 or 90 years, south Louisiana has been lacking that natural re-building process. Couple that with the land building sediments that are trapped behind locks and dams in other states, and you have the results we see today.
Glad to see we're all on the same page.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.