Hazardous Chemicals Released Into Air Following Hurricane-Related Refinery Accidents in Houston

By Ayana Byrd Aug 30, 2017

Rescue efforts continue today (August 30) in Texas following Hurricane Harvey, with a confirmed 30 people dead in the state and more fatalities expected.

However, flood waters are not the only danger for those in the Houston area. This weekend, many posted on Twitter about unbearable chemical smells in various parts of the city. And yesterday (August 29), per The Washington Post, ExxonMobil acknowledged that Hurricane Harvey damaged two of its refineries, releasing hazardous pollutants.


One accident happened at Exxon’s Beaumont petrochemical refinery. A sulfur thermal oxidizer was damaged by the hurricane, resulting in the release of 1,312.84 pounds of sulfur dioxide. This is higher than what is allowed in the company’s operating permits. Exxon says the unit has been repaired and is functioning normally again.

In the other incident, a roof that normally covered a tank at the Baytown oil refinery detached and sank below the oil and other materials held in the container, resulting in what The Post calls “unusually high emissions, especially of volatile organic compounds, a category of regulated chemicals.”

To repair this, Exxon says it will need to empty the tanks, which is not possible until the weather abates. In addition, about 15 pounds of benzene and other chemicals were released into the air at Baytown, the second largest oil refinery in the United States. The emission was the result of preparing for the storm.

“Most of the unauthorized emissions come from the process of shutting down, and then starting up, the various units of the plant, when pollution control devices can’t be operated properly and there’s lots of flaring,” Luke Metzger, director of the group Environment Texas, told The Post, adding that the release of these chemicals increases the chance of cancer and respiratory problems for people living near the plant.

These communites, per ThinkProgess, are overwhelmingly populated by low wage earners of color. In addition to the Exxon incidents, ThinkProgress reports:

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has shut off its air quality monitors to protect them from storm-related damage. As a result, petrochemical companies are expected to report emissions of pollutants to the nearby communities, which are largely minority and low-income. The temporary self-reporting may leave these residents uninformed about potentially dangerous pollutants in their air.

The Houston Chronicle reports that there was also a chemical leak from a pipeline that ruptured in La Porte, Texas, on Monday (August 28). A warning was issued, and later lifted, by local authorities urging residents to stay inside.

Harvey made landfall again today, this time as a tropical storm in Louisiana. "Low-lying New Orleans, devastated by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, is bracing to receive up to 10 inches of rain in 36 hours, with flash floods a major risk," writes the BBC. According to The Post, Louisiana has 1.65 million barrels a day of oil refining capacity, and the facilities are being closely monitored for accidents.