Is Harvey Also a Threat to the Air We Breathe?

Buffalo Bayou sloshing over its banks.
Buffalo Bayou sloshing over its banks.
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Thomas
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Foul smells are nothing new in Manchester — air pollution has laced the fence line community so steadily for so many years that most longtime residents don't even notice it anymore, as we've reported — and even in the face of Hurricane Harvey and a catastrophic flood in Houston, the main issue is once again something unknown in the air.

So far, Nayeli Olmos and most of the residents of Manchester, a community pressed up against the refineries and works of the Houston Ship Channel, have made it through Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent torrential rains from the tropical storm system, without any significant flooding. The community is lined with deep ditches and being close to the Ship Channel means the water tends to quickly drain off. They were surrounded by flooding but relatively lucky, she says.

But just before midnight on Saturday night, Olmos, who has lived a few blocks from the massive Valero Refinery for years, noticed a strange odor in the house, as if someone had turned on a gas burner on the stove in the kitchen and blown out the pilot light. Olmos and her family thought it was coming from inside the house until she stepped outside where the smell was even stronger.

"We figured it would go away on its own, but this morning it was still here, and it feels like whenever it rains the odor gets stronger, " she says. "Our neighbors were all talking about it and then I saw people from different neighborhoods talking about it on social media. That's when I realized it's not just us this time. It's all over East Houston."

Early Sunday morning Stephanie Thomas, of Public Citizen, one of the nonprofits that is part of the Healthy Port Communities Coalition, was walking down to Buffalo Bayou from her home in the Second Ward, just east of downtown Houston, when she caught a whiff of "something powerful."

"It smelled like burnt rubber with a hint of something metallic thrown in," she says. She didn't linger near the bayou and soon she too was seeing reports on social media of an unknown industrial-like stench.

However, it is still unclear where exactly the odor is coming from, but for people like Olmos, who has lived in Manchester for more than 15 years, the area refineries and petrochemical plants seem to be the likely culprits.

All of this comes as some area refineries, facing the reality of Harvey and Houston's catastrophic flooding, have abruptly started shutting down operations, including ExxonMobil, Petrobras, Shell and Chevron Phillips, all announced they were shutting down operations on Sunday.

While these shutdowns may be necessary, they can produce significant amounts of air pollution as the systems belch out all kinds of emissions during the shutdown process.

“Harvey is also a threat to the air we breathe,” Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, stated in a release. “When petrochemical plants prepare for storms, they release thousands of pounds of pollutants into the air. This pollution will hurt public health in Houston. It is a stark reminder of the dangers of living near industry. We urge everyone to stay safe.”

Chevron Phillips has already told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that it expects to exceed permitted limits for several hazardous pollutants, such as 1,3-butadiene, benzene and ethylene, during shutdown procedures.

At the same time, TCEQ has shut down all of its air quality monitors in the Houston area to avoid water and wind damage related to the storm. In other words, plants and refineries are being left on the honor system. They can report whatever is emitted, but if they don't do so, there are not any state air quality monitors running to catch them.

There are also plenty of refineries and plants that are still up and running during the flood, including the massive Valero refinery nestled against Manchester's side, according to a release issued Sunday. In fact, the federal Environmental Protection Agency even waived certain Clean Air Act fuel requirements for Texas while refineries work to make up for the inevitable shortages in fuel due to Harvey, so companies are operating with even less oversight than usual.

(We've asked Valero, Goodyear and other surrounding refineries and plants if they have any explanation for the mystery stink, but haven't heard back yet. We'll update when we do. We've also asked TCEQ if they have any explanation on what is going on and if they are looking into it. Again, we'll update with their take when they get back to us.)

With everything going on, it is thus hard to tell where exactly the odor is coming from. The only thing area residents are sure of is that there's something in the air. Bryan Parras, of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, the nonprofit that works on issues with fence line communities, noticed the odor at his him in Eastdown, a few miles away from Manchester.

"It was weird because I was getting a heartache and a scratchy throat like the one I get when I take people on toxic tours of Manchester, but I was sitting at home," Parras says. "The stuff was getting sucked into my house through the window air conditioning units."

Back home in Manchester, Olmos called 311 asking if they had any information on any recent releases, but was told nothing had changed. For a moment she wondered if they were all just more sensitive to the smells for some reason.

Then she met Jerome Harris. Harris and his wife had been on their way home on Saturday night when they noticed a weird smell as they drove over 610. Harris pulled off the highway thinking it was his truck. In the dark and the pouring rain, he missed the road and drove into a ditch right outside of Manchester.

Stuck, Harris and his wife cracked the windows and immediately got a huge whiff of a gaseous, metallic stench. "I've been in Houston all my life, and I knew it was coming from the Ship Channel, from the refineries, what we used to call the waterfront," Harris says. "It's always coming from those places."

Olmos and her husband rescued the couple, who were strangers, and are keeping them on their couch until the flooding passes enough that they can leave. "We're just staying indoors and trying to air the house out somehow. We don't really have any other choice, any of us here. We're flooded in and we can't escape whatever is in the air here."

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