Lin­ger­ing threats

Hous­to­ni­ans have a right to know about the toxic ef­fects of Har­vey’s flood­wa­ters.

Houston Chronicle - - WORLD -

It took about two weeks for fire­fight­ers to start dy­ing from ra­di­a­tion sick­ness at the Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear plant. As they rushed into the flames in the Ukrainian morn­ing, the crew didn’t know if they were re­spond­ing to an elec­tri­cal fire or a core melt­down, nor were they in­formed about the ra­dioac­tive threat posed by the de­bris and smoke.

To date, seven fire­fighter deaths have been at­trib­uted to the 1986 dis­as­ter — the most re­cent in 2004, when one of the heads of the fire brigade died from can­cer.

First re­spon­ders to dis­as­ters are not only he­roes, but of­ten the first vic­tims.

As Hous­ton re­cov­ers from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, we have to won­der what toxic chem­i­cals and danger­ous bac­te­ria are hid­ing in the muck and have be­come tick­ing time­bombs to the long-term health of our fire­fight­ers, po­lice of­fi­cers and cleanup crews. Fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment must en­sure that our pub­lic ser­vants and vol­un­teers don’t suc­cumb to some hid­den ill­ness.

We al­ready know that the wa­ters were danger­ous.

“Ev­ery­body has to con­sider the flood­wa­ter con­tam­i­nated,” Dr. David E. Persse, the chief medical of­fi­cer of Hous­ton, said af­ter the storm. While area homes are dry­ing out, the flood­wa­ters’ tox­ins may linger. They could set­tle into sed­i­ment, seep into our ground­wa­ter, or drain into our bay­ous, rivers and bays.

In the Clay­ton Homes pub­lic hous­ing de­vel­op­ment down­town, along the Buf­falo Bayou, an anal­y­sis paid for by the New York Times found star­tlingly high lev­els of E. coli in stand­ing wa­ter in one fam­ily’s liv­ing room — lev­els 135 times those con­sid­ered safe.

More trou­bling: The team of sci­en­tists found el­e­vated lev­els of lead, ar­senic and other heavy met­als.

One vol­un­teer nearly lost his life due to con­tam­i­na­tion from the flood­wa­ters, as doc­u­mented by Chron­i­cle re­porter Daniela Ster­nitzky-Di Napoli. J.R. Atkins was hos­pi­tal­ized with a deadly flesheat­ing bac­te­ria af­ter kayak­ing through flood­wa­ters to check on his neigh­bors.

Seven first re­spon­ders are su­ing Arkema Inc. af­ter be­ing sick­ened by toxic fumes at the com­pany’s fa­cil­ity in Crosby. Com­mu­ni­ties near Su­per­fund sites, such as the San Jac­into waste pits, are left to won­der if they’re putting their lives at risk by try­ing to clean up their homes.

The fed­eral En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and its state coun­ter­part, the Texas En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity Com­mis­sion, owe it to the peo­ple who are go­ing to be do­ing the dirty work of re­build­ing af­ter Har­vey to sam­ple what’s in area yards, ditches, wa­ter wells and creeks. These en­vi­ron­men­tal agen­cies have fo­cused their wa­ter qual­ity sam­pling on in­dus­trial fa­cil­i­ties and hazardous waste sites. That is not enough. These agen­cies owe it to the many weary and care­worn peo­ple who are mov­ing back into rav­aged homes to con­duct more tests on the na­ture and ex­tent of the con­tam­i­na­tion through­out the county and to re­lease these re­sults ex­pe­di­tiously. The agen­cies have a duty to make the pub­lic aware of the spe­cific con­tam­i­nants and any po­ten­tial longterm haz­ards.

So far, they’re fail­ing at that task. The EPA has not re­leased specifics about air pol­lu­tion lev­els in east Hous­ton af­ter Har­vey, ac­cord­ing to the Texas Tri­bune. And in a kick while we’re down, the fed­eral agency has also an­nounced plans to shut­ter its Hous­ton-area re­gional lab.

In­stead, the reg­u­la­tory bur­den is be­ing pushed onto Har­ris County and the city of Hous­ton. Per­haps the EPA and TCEQ missed the head­lines, but our lo­cal govern­ments have just been hit with more than 50 inches of rain and the bud­gets of their health de­part­ments have been stretched thin.

The Gulf Coast can’t be ex­pected to rely on the New York Times to serve as makeshift pol­lu­tion en­forcers. Our en­vi­ron­men­tal agen­cies must do their jobs.

Af­ter the Ch­er­nobyl dis­as­ter, Soviet cit­i­zens were left in the dark about the true dan­gers they faced. Fa­tal­ity lists were kept se­cret, and gov­ern­ment de­nied de­mands for trans­parency. The en­tire cri­sis be­came a sym­bol of the Soviet Union’s fail­ures.

As Hous­ton re­builds, fed­eral and state of­fi­cials must show that they can keep peo­ple safe in the wake of the worst dis­as­ters — not only from the im­me­di­ate threat, but also the dan­gers that can linger for decades. Hous­ton doesn’t need more vic­tims of Har­vey.

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