Oil Refinery Leak Threatens Health of a Latinx Neighborhood in Houston

By Ayana Byrd Sep 07, 2017

Residents of Houston’s Manchester neighborhood have long lived with the risks associated with being located near an oil refinery, but in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the danger is even greater as a dangerous mix of cancer-causing chemicals have leaked into the air.

According to an article published yesterday (September 6) in The New York Times, local health officials disclosed on Tuesday (September 5) that a high level of the carcinogenic chemical benzene was detected in the neighborhood, which is close to the Valero Energy refinery. Benzene is a toxic, flammable chemical found in oil and gasoline that can cause central nervous system damage and bone marrow damage. When the air quality was measured, it was present at concentrations up to 324 parts per billion of benzene, which is higher than the level at which federal guidelines require workers to wear special breathing equipment.

Manchester is a 90 percent Latinx neighborhood in which 36 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to the Census. Per The Times:

Manchester, a low-income neighborhood hemmed in by two freeways, a shipping lane and the Valero refinery, has long suffered from industrial pollution. Researchers have found elevated levels of childhood leukemia in several areas in Houston, including Manchester, a plight blamed on high levels of chemicals in the air.

In addition to the high levels of benzene, volatile organic compounds have also been found in high concentrations in the air. They can cause liver damage and cancer.

The leak that caused the release of these compounds occurred during the hurricane. Valero filed a report on the incident, during which, as The Times explains, “a floating roof covering a tank at its Houston refinery sank on Aug. 27 in the heavy rains brought by Harvey, causing benzene to leak into the air.”  

A health official from the Environmental Defense Fund told The Times that monitoring the air and the health of local residents is “essential.” She added that community members are in danger of dizziness, nausea and lightheadness in the near future, with long-term risks including cancer. “We’re very concerned about people’s long-term health in the area,” she said.

This is not the first time that leaks at the Valero refinery have been a health concern for Manchester. In 2016, an article on AlterNet reported on, “the smell of benzene spewing from the nearby Valero oil refinery at 1.5-4.7ppm, the threshold at which most humans can begin to smell the chemical and what the Centers for Disease Control calls a possible indication of ‘acutely hazardous exposure.’”