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Historic Hurricane Releases ‘Benzene Plume’

Chemical Plants Throughout Southeast Texas Unleash Toxic Torrent Ahead of Harvey

Hurricane Harvey’s devastation reaches beyond punishing winds and record-setting floods.

Refineries and petrochemical plants across the Houston and greater southwest Texas region released millions of pounds of pollutants before and after the storm, including the carcinogen benzene.

The city of Houston, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York-based advocacy group the Environmental Defense Fund are investigating a benzene “plume” detected in a neighborhood after Hurricane Harvey damaged a nearby refinery.

The Wall Street Journal reports two monitors detected different benzene levels at different times. Loren Raun, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department and Elena Craft, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, say additional monitoring is needed to determine the health risks behind the plume’s release.

The EPA said they are deploying an air monitor in the area on Sept. 5, 2017 to help the agencies pinpoint the source of the benzene link, and determine how far the leak spread.

“EPA continues to conduct ambient air monitoring in Houston and is focusing on an area of potential concern associated with reported air emissions from a Valero facility in Houston,” said EPA spokesman David Gray.

A refinery owned by Valero Energy Partners reported a hurricane-related benzene leak on August 27, 2017. The company notified the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) the leak released not only benzene but other hazardous compounds as a result of “heavy rainfall complications.”

The New York Times reported on Sept. 8, 2017 the Valero refinery was but one of 46 facilities across 13 southeast Texas counties reporting significant emissions caused by Hurricane Harvey. An analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund, Air Alliance Houston and Public Citizen shows the facilities released an estimated 4.6 million pounds of potentially dangerous emissions between Aug. 23 and Aug. 30.

Shaye Wolf, ecologist and climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said plant shutdowns cause increased emissions through flares. A flare relieves pressure built up when operations cease quickly.

The Times report said many plants in Harvey’s path released elevated amounts of benzene and other pollutants into the air when they shut down for the storm, and again when they resumed operations once the storm passed. A Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, 100 miles southwest of Houston, released 1.3 million pounds of benzene and other chemicals when restarting following the storm.

The most notable chemical release came in Crosby, Texas, after a storm-damaged Arkema chemical plant exploded on August 31. The explosion sent 21 first responders to local hospitals for smoke inhalation and displaced residents within a 1.5 mile radius of the plant.

Seven of those emergency workers filed suit against Arkema on Sept. 7, 2017, alleging the company didn’t adequately warn law enforcement and public health agencies about the chemicals kept there.

TCEQ said most of the air monitors shut down during the storm are back on line, and did not detect chemical emissions at harmful levels.

Benzene has repeatedly been proven to cause cancer in humans. Benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon compound used in the manufacture of plastics, resins and dyes and many other products. Numerous scientific studies detail benzene’s various adverse health effects, including causing acute myeloid leukemia, myelodysplastic syndrome, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The 14th Report of Carcinogens published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program states benzene is known to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient carcinogenicity evidence.

Industries most commonly linked to benzene exposure include petrochemical manufacturing, petroleum refining, coke and coal chemical manufacturing, rubber tire manufacturing, gasoline storage, shipment and retail operations, plastics and rubber manufacturing, and shoe manufacturing.

Occupations particularly vulnerable to benzene exposure include steel workers, printers, rubber workers, shoe makers, laboratory technicians and gas station employees.

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