Air Monitors Tracking Benzene, Other Pollutants, in Post-Harvey Manchester

The east side of Houston is still seeing fallout from Hurricane Harvey in the form of air pollution, including streams of benzene.
The east side of Houston is still seeing fallout from Hurricane Harvey in the form of air pollution, including streams of benzene. Photo by Doogie Roux
Hurricane Harvey was nasty enough in its own right, but it's becoming increasingly apparent the catastrophic storm is also behind a significant amount of air pollution coming out of the refineries and petrochemical plants in the storm's path.

Now air pollution, including plumes of benzene, is being tracked in Manchester and other eastside Houston neighborhoods nestled against the works of those refineries and plants along the Houston Ship Channel.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, officials with both the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have gone out of their way to reassure people that the storm that hit the Houston Ship Channel, the heart of the petrochemical industry in the United States, has not resulted in any fallout for those who live near the refineries and plants located along the coast.

The EPA even released a statement Sunday that “local residents should not be concerned about air quality issues related to the effects of the storm.” But despite that broad assurance, Houston has been under alert for ground-level ozone, a lung-damaging air pollutant, since Friday, according to the EPA's own air pollution tracking website.

TCEQ has mostly just stayed quiet since the state agency opted to turn off its air monitors as the storm approached two weeks ago.

However, both the Houston Health Department and the Environmental Defense Fund set up air quality monitors in Manchester on Monday and have been collecting data. Since then the monitors have detected streams of benzene, a component of crude oil and gas and a known carcinogen, and other air pollutants in the community, making both the TCEQ silence and the EPA assurances look particularly ridiculous.

“EPA said inaccurately and inappropriately that residents should not be concerned about the air quality around Houston. Although air quality monitoring remains limited after the storm, we are seeing high levels of ozone across the region, as well as high levels of air toxics in fence-line communities," Elena Craft, senior health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, stated in a release. "We can expect more air pollution as facilities reboot over the next month."

In fact, the shutdowns and startups from the various chemical plants and refineries due to Harvey have already released about four million pounds of pollutants so far in concentrations nearly ten times what health officials have deemed safe, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

And of course, Manchester, the community where residents were reporting strange odors coming from the refineries and plants before the hurricane had even passed, is seeing some of the worst of the post-Harvey pollution. The two monitors detected sharply different levels of benzene, a component of crude oil and gas that is also a known carcinogen, at different times of day in the neighborhood.

So far, the air monitors installed by the Houston Health Department and the Environmental Defense Fund have measured about 15,000 parts per billion of smog-forming volatile organic compounds in the air around Manchester and the Valero refinery that hugs the low-income, minority-dominated community on its southern fence line.

That's a pretty big deal.

For one thing, benzene is nasty stuff. Short-term exposure can leave a person dizzy and confused, with a racing heart, tremors, headache and various other symptoms, while long-term exposure can make the body's cells stop functioning properly, leading to anemia, a damaged immune system and a chance of developing leukemia and other types of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

It's actually not news that benzene plumes shoot up out of Manchester in thick, toxic bursts every so often. Back in February 2015, researchers discovered benzene coming from the area refineries and the Houston Ship Channel, as expected.

The Houston Advanced Research Center, led by Jay Olaguer, also found benzene was bursting, unseen, out of pipelines buried below Manchester and Galena Park, another fence-line neighborhood, as we reported. (We've reached out to Olaguer to get his take on the recently reported emissions. We'll update when we hear back.) Last year Air Alliance Houston followed up with its own report finding the same type of benzene emissions in nearby Galena Park, as we reported.

But what is interesting about the current reports of benzene emissions in the area is that both local and federal officials are now actively attempting to track the benzene releases and to understand where the emissions are coming from, which is a new twist in the situation in Manchester.

Of course, there's at least one obvious source, Valero. While Valero is not the only refinery to report such issues to the TCEQ, as we've previously reported, it is the refinery located closest to Manchester. Still, the Valero refinery reported leaks of benzene and other oil-related materials to TCEQ on August 27, just as Hurricane Harvey was clearing out.

If Valero is the ultimate source behind the benzene plumes, the company isn't sharing that information. Valero issued a release on August 29 stating that the company's air-quality monitoring found "no detectable levels of emissions in the community," but there has been no update on the situation around the Valero refinery since then.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray