Texas Law and News Blog

Harvey Highlights Houston Hazardous Chemical Risk

Hazardous Materials WarningFollowing Hurricane Harvey’s late August landfall, the Houston area and many other Texas communities were faced with another problem: exposure to hazardous chemicals. While these leaks, spills, burns and explosions were triggered by the extreme weather, they also served to shine a spotlight on the ongoing risks faced by many Texas residents.

Hazardous Chemical Exposure Post-Hurricane Harvey

Data reported by the companies involved and assembled by Greenpeace suggests that more than 5.7 million pounds of pollution was released into the air in the month surrounding the hurricane. 1.5 million pounds, or more than ¼ of that total, involved especially hazardous chemicals, such as nitrogen oxides and benzene.
While many companies reported some pollution, three accounted for the majority of both total air pollution and the most dangerous chemicals.

  • Magellan Midstream Partners reported 2.529 million pounds of air pollution, with more than 500,000 pounds of the most hazardous chemicals.
  • Valero Energy reported 579,351 pounds of total air pollution, including more than 274,000 pounds of the most dangerous chemicals.
  • Saudi Aramco reported 439,244 pounds of total air pollution, including more than 179,000 pounds of the most hazardous chemicals.

Together, these three companies were responsible for more than 62% of total air pollution and more than 64% of the most hazardous chemicals released into the atmosphere during and in the wake of the hurricane.
The most serious spill, involving more than 450,000 gallons of gasoline, was initially significantly underreported. While residents of Galena Park reported an overwhelming smell of gasoline in the air and symptoms such as burning eyes when they went outside, it was weeks before Magellan and government agencies provided area residents with accurate information about the chemical exposure.

According to the Greenpeace report, the vast majority of facilities reporting the release of hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere are located in low-income communities.

Known Hazardous Chemical Risks Ignored

Some of the hazardous chemical releases associated with Hurricane Harvey may have been difficult or impossible to avoid, given the strength of the storm and the huge volume of rain that fell over a short period of time. Both the massive Magellan release and a smaller incident at the Exxon refinery in Baytown involved floating rooftop tanks that were designed to be secure against about 10 inches of rain. It’s rare for the Houston area to see more than five inches of precipitation in a month.

However, there are indications that at least some of the companies involved were on notice of the risks long before Harvey became an issue. For example, after the Arkema chemical plant explosion in Crosby, information emerged suggesting that the company had been aware of the risk since 2009. That situation was aggravated when the company initially failed or refused to release information about the chemicals being released into the area. In early September, the Houston Chronicle called for a change in the Texas state policy that allows companies to conceal information about the hazardous chemicals stored in their facilities.

Lawsuits connected with the Arkema fire claim that residents and first responders suffered welts, lesions, inability to breathe, vomiting and other symptoms. And, of course, the full extent of the chemical exposure and its effects are not yet known.

Hazardous Chemical Exposures Continue

The investigations surrounding the chemical exposure associated with Hurricane Harvey remains underway. But, even as investigators analyze the extent of the pollution and residents wait to see what long-term effects the exposure may have, new incidents occur—and with them, the news that the companies involved had ample opportunity to protect their employees and local residents.

On October 1, for example, ammonia leaked from the Brazoria County Ascend Performance Materials facility, near the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. In the wake of that leak, local news outlets reported that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had inspected Ascend’s Texas facilities four times, and had cited the company in 2014 for unsafe management of another hazardous chemical, hydrogen cyanide.

If You’ve Been Exposed to Hazardous Chemicals, Seek Help

If you were exposed to hazardous chemicals in a post-hurricane event, or in the course of your employment or an incident in your community, do not ignore symptoms you may experience. The full nature and extent of harm from chemical exposure may not be immediately obvious, so consult a medical professional if you experience even minor effects.

If you have been injured through exposure to hazardous chemicals, you may be entitled to compensation. This type of litigation can be extremely complicated, and requires considerable resources. Call 800-298-0111 to schedule a free consultation and learn how we can help.