The Washington Post
Houston’s flood threatens to turn polluted Superfund sites into a toxic soup
As floodwater inched toward his house in south Houston, Wes Highfield set out on a risky mission in his Jeep Cherokee. He drove in several directions to reach a nearby creek to collect water samples, but each time, he was turned back when water washed against his floorboard.
“Yesterday as these large retention ponds filled up, eight feet deep in places, kids were swimming in them, and that’s not good,” said Highfield, a scientist at Texas A&M University’s Galveston campus. The Brio Refining toxic Superfund site, where ethylbenzene, chlorinated hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds were once pooled in pits before the Environmental Protection Agency removed them, sits “just up the road, and it drains into our watershed,” he said.
Harris County, home to Houston, has at least a dozen federal Superfund sites, more than any other county in Texas. The state lists several other highly toxic sites managed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. As much as 30 percent of the county is underwater. Like other scientists in the area, Highfield is deeply worried about toxins leaking into the water. On Tuesday, Exxon-Mobil reported that two of its refineries east of Houston had released pollutants. “I made a couple of phone calls to colleagues who said, ‘Bottle up [samples], label them and we’ll run them all,’ ” Highfield said.
On Monday, a spokesman for the Texas commission, Brian McGovern, wrote in an email that its workers “took steps to secure state sites in the projected path of Hurricane Harvey” by removing drums with chemical wastes and shutting down systems. McGovern said that “EPA has been coordinating with potentially responsible parties” that created the federal toxic sites to secure them. “The TCEQ and EPA will be inspecting sites in the affected areas once reentry is possible,” McGovern wrote. On Tuesday, EPA officials in Washington traveled to Houston to monitor environmental risks.
With its massive petroleum and chemical industry, Houston presents a huge challenge in a major flooding event, said Mathy Stanislaus, who oversaw the federal Superfund program throughout the Obama administration. Typically, the EPA tries to identify Superfund sites in a major storm’s path to “shore up the active operations” and “minimize seepage from sites,” Stanislaus said.
Before Hurricane Sandy bore down on New Jersey and New York, the agency rushed to sites in harm’s way. Still, Stanislaus said, “There was some spread of contamination.” The EPA tested Superfund sites after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and found that contamination was relatively contained, said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. But she cautioned that many vulnerable sites lie in the path of any storm that strikes a major metropolitan area such as Houston.
Risks at Superfund sites where contamination hasn’t been resolved “are of the flooding picking up contaminants as it goes,” Loeb said. Contaminated sediment “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.”
Residents who use well water are especially vulnerable, Loeb said: “There’s no testing of their water to know whether it’s been contaminated.”
Harris County’s polluted Superfund sites also include the low-lying San Jacinto River Waste Pits that “is subject to flooding from storm surges generated by both tropical storms (i.e. hurricanes) and extra tropical storms” that push water inward from Galveston Bay, according to an Army Corps of Engineers report last year.
There’s also the Many Diversified Interests site near the heart of the city, the Crystal Chemical site in southwest Houston, the Patrick Bayou site off the Houston Ship Channel, and the Jones Road Plume dry cleaning waste site. They include oily sludge and contaminants dangerous to inhale or touch: perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene and chlorinated hydrocarbons, to name a few.
“When you get water in your home, it’s not just water, it’s sediment and debris,” said Samuel Brody, a colleague of Highfield. “It’s the sediment that these toxic molecules bind to and become dangerous, like dioxins. Once you get water in the home and it has to be cleaned out, people are exposed.”
Highfield said, “It was absolutely those kids swimming” that triggered his determination to test the water. “That was kind of the aha moment. I plotted a path earlier thinking I could get kind of a back road path where I thought the water would be lower at the creek.”
But his car was no match for the worst flooding ever in a city that has flooded since the month it was founded. “I need it to stop raining. And I need things to drain a little bit,” Highfield said.