Air Pollution From Industry Plagues Houston In Harvey's Wake

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right, let's circle back to the U.S. and the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. As if the record rainfall and flooding were not enough, many Houston-area residents are now coping with increased air pollution. Houston's petroleum refineries and chemical plants have reported more than 50 separate releases of pollutants in the aftermath of Harvey. People who live around Houston are concerned about the possible impact on their health. From Houston, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: To be completely honest, Galena Park often smells a bit funky. The community sits on the north side of Houston's shipping channel, right in the shadows of massive oil refineries and chemical plants.

JUAN FLORES: Because of the wind direction primarily in Houston here, blowing from the south, we get a lot of the smells and chemicals that come over in our direction.

SCHAPER: Juan Flores has lived here for 36 years.

FLORES: You smell the real - I mean, I'm trying to describe it here - rotten-egg smell sometimes if you're close enough to - in certain areas. Sometimes you just smell a chemical smell.

SCHAPER: Flores, who works for the group Air Alliance Houston, says that odor is just a fact of life here.

FLORES: It takes a lot for me to smell it now. But, like, the other day after Harvey, we could smell it - big time.

SCHAPER: Flores is walking down his street. He gets a few houses away from his own, and then he turns down a neighbor's driveway.

FLORES: Hey, Jesse, you there?

JESSE PEREZ: Hey, I'm back here.

FLORES: We're coming your way.

SCHAPER: Forty-one-year-old Jesse Perez agrees the air quality has been worse lately.

PEREZ: Right after the storm, it smell like petroleum, like a heavy - a strong smell.

SCHAPER: Perez says his wife complained about irritation in her eyes and her throat, as the fumes and the odor weren't just outside.

PEREZ: We entered this door right here, and inside, you can smell it. It was horrible, and, like, it was strong.

SCHAPER: Others in the neighborhood complain about headaches and burning eyes. And residents suspect the nearby Magellan facility, which just acknowledged Tuesday that more than 460,000 gallons of gasoline leaked from two storage tanks in the days after the storm. It's the biggest of at least a dozen such spills reported so far in the aftermath of Harvey, and that's not to mention the additional air pollution coming from shutting down and restarting the region's refineries and petrochemical plants. Elena Craft is a senior staff scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

ELENA CRAFT: Just in the last two weeks or so, we've had 7 million pounds of air emissions reported by facilities to the state environmental agency.

SCHAPER: One of the most dangerous releases was right here in the Houston neighborhood of Manchester. Air samples taken by the city of Houston's Health Department after the storm showed unusually high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. Again, Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund...

CRAFT: Exposure can lead to headaches, nausea. At high enough exposures, it can lead to immunosuppression. And obviously, some of the long-term implications are an increased risk for cancer.

SCHAPER: State and federal regulators say that residents should not be concerned about air quality issues related to the effects of the storm, adding that all measured concentrations of emissions were well below levels of health concern. But they had to shut down most of the monitoring stations to protect the equipment before Harvey hit. An EPA spokesman says state and local authorities are working to get those systems up and running again as quickly as possible, but that's of little comfort to those who live downwind of Houston's refineries and chemical plants.

David Schaper, NPR News, Houston.

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