Silent Spills: For Crosby residents, a ‘bitter taste’ about Arkema, and little help from government

Houston Chronicle
By Alex Stuckey

CROSBY — By the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 29, the skeleton crew at Arkema’s chemical plant knew it was time to go.

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey had caused the plant to lose power. Thousands of gallons of chemical-laden water had spilled into the floodwaters. Soon, the company’s stash of volatile organic peroxides would warm enough to produce fires so noxious that first responders vomited at the scene. The last of Arkema’s workers evacuated, floating over a 6-foot chain-link fence in a small boat.

A half-mile to the northwest, Diane and Nolan Glover knew none of this. Then the National Guard showed up on Tuesday afternoon, ordering them to evacuate.

The retired couple, both in their 60s, were busy trying to protect their belongings from more than 3 feet of floodwater and didn’t think to turn on the radio. Though they had power, the storm had knocked out their satellite TV reception.

Many of their neighbors also were unaware of the danger that lurked. Their desperate pleas for information were posted beneath vague Facebook updates from the company. Interviews with about 10 residents also show that they didn’t receive emergency robocalls from Arkema that were ordered by a Harris County judge after a release of sulfuric acid more than 20 years ago.

Today, they are still angry about all they did not know until the knock on the door Aug. 29. And seven months later, they say they still know very little about any potential health effects from the flood and the fires.

They don’t know what chemicals they’ve been exposed to — or about any threat they face from the air they breathe or the water they continue to drink. They say that the company failed them before the accident, and that the state and the federal government have failed them afterward.

“I have a bitter taste in my mouth about Arkema,” Diane Glover said. “I feel like they should have reached out to everyone.”

The activity of the company and government regulators since the Arkema disaster falls into the pattern that has emerged seven months after the storm, a Houston Chronicle/Associated Press review of county, state and federal records shows. The extent of the environmental assault is starting to emerge, and Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency declaration suspending state environmental rules remains in effect, making it more difficult for local authorities to press their case against companies that lost control of their petroleum and chemical products.

During the height of the chaos, Environmental Protection Agency officials, along with Arkema, repeatedly assured residents that the air and water were not dangerous. Contractors for the company and federal regulators conducted some sampling of air and water as well as solid ash produced by the fires in the aftermath of the storm, but homeowners, lawyers and environmental experts say it was done in a haphazard, patchwork way that was inadequate to establish whether there is a threat to public health.

Arkema, for example, tested the wells of 37 homes; there are roughly 350 homes within 1.5 miles of the plant, though it’s unclear how many get their water from private wells.

“I don’t think they did enough analyses,” said Hussain Abdulla, an assistant professor of chemistry at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, who examined the test results at the request of the news organizations. He referred both to the company and to regulators.

EPA test results show peroxide in the air near Arkema at the time of the accident. And testing of some private wells at the homes near the plant showed elevated levels of some metals that the company says are not byproducts of their production. The tests also found acetone, a chemical used by Arkema that can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and confusion. It is the primary ingredient in nail polish remover.

Federal officials have declined to answer reporters’ questions, directing them instead to information on the EPA website.

Texas state environmental authorities did not conduct any tests of sediment, groundwater or air around the plant site either during or after the storm, records show. Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality declined to be interviewed, citing a pending investigation into the incident.

The EPA and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office are also investigating. Harris and Liberty counties are suing the company.

Records previously obtained by the Houston Chronicle show that the company’s emergency response plan had little direction on how to handle a major flood. Its power transformers and backup generators were not high enough off the ground, and it had a tank of an extremely dangerous chemical, isobutylene, located about 40 yards from six trailers loaded with organic peroxides that had been relocated during the storm.

Arkema spokeswoman Janet Smith said company officials have taken a number of steps to help those who live near the plant.

“We’re extremely sorry that our incident caused an evacuation at a time when our neighbors were already reeling from a historic storm,” Smith said. “We care about our community, and we demonstrated this in Crosby before, during and after Hurricane Harvey.”

The company is the North American branch of the Colombes, France-based chemicals manufacturer that specializes in vinyl products including PVC, cholorochemicals and compounds. It has two dozen facilities in the United States, including plants in Crosby, Bayport, Clear Lake and Beaumont. The Crosby facility has had a history of regulatory problems related to the improper storage of organic peroxides and the mishandling of hazardous materials.

Rock Owens, Harris County’s environmental attorney, said officials want to make sure the August incident isn’t repeated.

“Our primary mission (now) is when the plant reopens — maybe in the spring sometime — that it’s in the condition where this cannot happen again,” Owens said. “What we found so far was just a lack of preparation for this kind of event. We think that plant could upgrade — and they probably need to move some of this material off site.”

The after effects of the Arkema accident

When it became clear that the chemicals stored at Arkema’s Crosby plant were going to catch fire, emergency personnel evacuated residents within a 1.5 mile radius of the site. Despite this evacuation, chemicals were released into the air and the water during the accident.

After a 5-year-old girl was severely burned during a 1994 sulfuric acid release at the Crosby plant, a Harris County judge ordered in 1996 that the company alert residents within a mile of its property when potential dangers arise.

Residents who live within that boundary estimate those emergency calls came more than 10 times during the past 10 years.

But the Glovers, along with their neighbors Margaret and Tom Lewis, say that call never came when Harvey bore down on the area.

The order requires plant officials to “activate the system in the event of any release of pollutants with potentially adverse health or safety impacts.” The list of active phone numbers must be updated “to the maximum extent practicable every six months,” it states.

Owens said the company appears to have failed to activate the call system. He said that had raised questions for the county, adding that having to evacuate people without notice means they likely “suffered hardship, difficulty and damages.”

Emergency personnel began evacuating residents within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant Aug. 29. An analysis of Harris County property records and U.S. Census Bureau data shows there are 350 homes in that area.

Harris County has filed suit against the company. Separately, several first responders and about 660 local residents have also sued Arkema. Neither the Glovers nor the Lewises are involved in the residents’ lawsuit.

Janet Smith, an Arkema spokeswoman, said the question of whether the company issued robocalls as required is “part of pending litigation.”

However, she said Arkema communicated with local residents through media statements and news releases, as well as Twitter and Facebook posts. The company also posted updates on its website, created a 24/7 phone hotline and placed messages on an industry-run cell phone application called “Community Awareness Emergency Response” (CAER) for informing the public about potentially hazardous incidents.

A review of posts on Arkema’s Facebook page shows that the company posted ambiguous messages more than 10 times between Aug. 29 and when the evacuation order was lifted Sept. 4, redirecting concerned residents to the company’s website. The company posted more detailed information there.

Before Arkema posted its first update on Aug. 29, the plant completely lost electrical power, forcing the skeleton crew still there to move highly volatile organic peroxides into refrigeration trailers to keep them cool. They can explode if they get too hot.

And those trailers already had started to fail.

Arkema’s first website update at 8 a.m. on Aug. 29 told residents that they didn’t need to worry: “Arkema does not believe that the situation presents a risk to the community or the ride-out crew, due to the distance between the refrigerated cars and any people.” By that time, the workers had been given the OK to leave, and one already had.

About six hours later, Arkema posted another Facebook update at 2:30 p.m., saying the situation had become “serious.”

The potential for a fire or explosion on site due to the compromised trailers was “real,” company officials wrote, but still they felt there was no “imminent danger.” Arkema officials posted an update again at 5:50 p.m., with little new information.

At the time, Arkema officials did not inform residents of a wastewater spill earlier that day into the floodwaters that had inundated the plant.

State records show that Arkema reported the accidental release of up to 18,000 gallons of stormwater laced with mineral oil and residual organics. That spill, which mingled with floodwaters in the plant and ran downstream toward Cedar Bayou, also caused a release of chemicals into the air including ethylbenzene, which is linked to cancer but can also cause inner ear and kidney damage, as well as vertigo; trimethylbenzene, which can cause chemical pneumonia and chronic bronchitis; and tert-butyl alcohol, which can affect the kidneys and thyroid.

“We reported this inundation of our wastewater system to TCEQ, which is a public agency,” Smith said. “Consistent with other industry in the area, we broadly notified the community about issues that we believed presented a potential threat to community members.”

With each new Facebook post, frightened local residents and their family members posted questions, at points demanding information about how they might be affected. Company officials did not respond publicly to those questions on their Facebook page.

The Glovers did not see any of these updates. The couple does not use social media. Neither do the Lewises.

On Aug. 30, Arkema said on its website that the organic peroxide in the refrigerated containers likely would catch fire. It listed “key health effects” related to smoke exposure from an organic peroxide fire, which included eye, skin and respiratory irritation, as well as dizziness, drowsiness and nausea.

The update also noted that there was “a small possibility” that the chemicals could be released into floodwaters — without saying anything about the spill that had occurred the previous day.

“While it is possible that you may see an oil sheen or smell a slight odor, we anticipate the break down products would dissipate in the water or evaporate,” the update stated.

The first trailer caught fire Thursday, Aug. 31, and Arkema later reported that it had released acetone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and 2-ethylhexanol, among other chemicals, according to the county lawsuit. Two more trailers burned in the days that followed, leading to a controlled burn of the remaining trailers on Sept. 3.

Volatile organic compounds were detected in the air between 2.5 and 3 miles northwest of the plant, accompanied by a laundry detergent-like odor, smoke and falling ash, according to Harris County’s lawsuit.

No state testing

Bret Simmons cried out in pain as he pushed his motorcycle through the floodwaters near Arkema on Aug. 29, his legs burning more with each staggered step through the water, he contends in a lawsuit.

Once he and his wife, Phyllis, made it safely to higher ground, they stopped to examine his legs. They were covered in blisters, lesions and burns. Phyllis was safe from the floodwaters, the residents’ lawsuit states, because she was seated on the motorcycle with her legs out of the water. Bret sought medical treatment.

On the same day, state officials had been told by Arkema that chemicals were spilled into the floodwaters around the plant. Additionally, state records show that several days later, on Sept. 1, Arkema told the state environmental agency that material stored in a container on site was decomposing and mixing with stormwater, which caused a threat to Cedar Bayou.

“… it is unsafe to be in the vicinity, due to floodwaters,” the records stated, adding that Arkema was performing tests around the facility.

On Sept. 1, the EPA collected six surface water runoff samples from four locations outside the evacuation zone near residential homes, according to a Sept. 8 news release.

The results were lower than what would warrant an investigation, according to the release, and no volatile or semi-volatile organic chemicals were detected.

The next day, Sept. 2, emails show agency officials discussing a yellow “discharge” oozing from some of the trailers full of chemicals on the site in the days after Harvey made landfall.

Multiple aerial photos taken by federal officials capture the spread of this substance, which officials said in an email “appears to be heating.”

The Houston Police Department’s bomb squad began setting fire to the remaining containers on site on Sept. 3.

The contractors hired by Arkema waited until Sept. 6 to test the stormwater, taking samples from 41 drainage and containment ditches in and around the facility, according to a state environmental document produced in October. The results of 13 of those samples were made available to the state as of Oct. 9.

All 13 samples showed elevated levels of acetone, a chemical found in the company’s inventory, and methane. Benzene, a known carcinogen, also was detected in one of the areas tested, according to results published on the state environmental agency’s website.

The contractors did not test any stormwater near homes surrounding the plant.

A&M Corpus Christi’s Abdulla said he was concerned about the “approaches and analysis” of the testing.

For example, he noted the apparent lack of testing for dioxins, which could have been released when the refrigerated trailers full of organic peroxides burned.

“There were no analyses conducted for these compounds in the air, soil and the water around the accident area,” he said. “In addition, there is no information about the materials that made these refrigerated trailers, as some older models could contain asbestos.”

Drinking the water

The Glovers wake up each morning hoping that their well is free of toxic chemicals.

They treated the well with bleach numerous times in an attempt to cleanse their drinking water, but they lacked the funds to have it tested. Lab-certified well water testing can cost $25 to $400, depending on what toxins are being screened, according to Wisconsin-based Clean Water Testing Certified Lab and Services.

That cost seemed overwhelming to the couple. Their home of three decades was so damaged in Harvey they had to bulldoze it and start over with a double-wide trailer.

“It comes to a point where you have to say, ‘We’re just going to take our chances,’ ” Diane Glover said. “We don’t have the money to do that, and I wish Arkema would do that for us.”

Arkema did conduct tests for some residents. A contractor hired by the company conducted private well testing at the request of residents, said Smith, the company spokeswoman.

The Glovers said they did not know they could ask Arkema to test their water.

The company’s contractor tested 37 wells around the site, Smith said, and “none of the wells we tested showed levels of our chemicals that exceeded residential limits established by the State of Texas.”

The results of those tests show that many wells had elevated levels of barium, a heavy metal never found in nature as a free element, while others showed elevated levels of lead, acetone, and bis(2-Chloroethyl)ether, used to make pesticides as well as paint and varnish. Smith said that barium and lead would not be related to the plant and it’s not clear if any of the other chemicals are from the August accident.

Those test results were provided to the individual well owners, the state’s website stated. In Texas, there is no regulatory oversight to ensure water quality for owners of private wells, according to the Texas Groundwater Protection Committee.

In looking at the test results, Abdulla said these “single snapshot” measures couldn’t reveal the true environmental impact of the accident. However, he said some of the results of the drinking water analyses were “alarming.”

For example, Abdulla said the testing results of one well showed elevated levels of bromodichloromethane — known to cause kidney and liver problems in animals — and chloroform, “which could be a byproduct of chlorine disinfection or some leaks of the organic solvents that (are) used to synthesize organic peroxides.”

The company does not plan on testing any more wells, Smith said.

“We have done a substantial amount of testing as requested by our neighbors in Crosby, and we don’t believe additional well-water testing is warranted because none of our testing has shown levels of our chemicals that exceed residential limits established by the State of Texas for drinking water wells,” she said.

Kevin Thompson, a West Virginia-based attorney representing Bret and Phyllis Simmons and about 660 other Crosby residents, said initial testing results conducted on behalf of his firm show that water in and around the plant is toxic. Arkema and the EPA, he said, were not testing for all the appropriate chemicals.

Testing paid for by Thompson’s firm showed levels of cyanide and bromodichloromethane in private water wells that exceeded the state and federal screening standards. Surface water samples taken show levels of arsenic that exceed the human health risk-based exposure limits for humans and fish.


The sulfuric acid release of the 1990s isn’t the only time Arkema has found itself in hot water with regulatory agencies.

In 2006, the state cited the plant for a fire caused by improperly stored organic peroxides.

Five years later, the state cited the plant again, this time for failing to maintain proper temperatures of its thermal oxidizer.

And in 2016, the federal government took notice. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Arkema $91,724 after finding 10 violations at the Crosby site, many involving the mishandling of hazardous materials.

“Process safety management prevents the unexpected release of toxic, reactive or flammable liquids and gases in processes involving highly hazardous chemicals,” said David Doucet, director of OSHA’s Houston North Area Office. “It’s vital that Arkema ensure that safeguards are in place to protect the safety of workers at this facility.”

Arkema’s CEO Richard Rowe said last fall that the company spent millions of dollars on upgrades after the fines and believed all issues cited in the inspections had been addressed.

Arkema, however, could be in more regulatory trouble after the various agencies complete their investigations into the August accident.

Lise Olsen contributed to this report.

About the series: This series is the result of a collaboration between the Chronicle and the Associated Press.

Alex Stuckey joined the Chronicle as the NASA, science and environment reporter in 2017. She is a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for her work at the Salt Lake Tribune on how Utah colleges handle reports of sexual assault. That same year, she was named a Livingston Finalist and, several years prior, won an Investigative Reporters and Editors award for a story on the failed reporting of drug seizures in Ohio that resulted in a seven-year jail sentence for former Athens County Sheriff Pat Kelly. Contact her at Follow her on Twitter at@alexdstuckey.

Multimedia by Elizabeth Conley and John Mone

Interactives and design by Jordan Rubio

Middle schoolers aim to make Houston plastic bag free

Houston Chronicle
By Rebecca Hazen

Caoilin Krathaus and Lila Mankad, 12-year-old friends and classmates at Hogg Middle School, are sixth-graders on a campaign to save the world.

They enjoy typical hobbies such as reading, being outdoors, and camping, but they also have a common goal to make Houston more sustainable and waste free by starting a plastic bag ordinance.

They have joined forces together for the last three years to save Houston one bag at a time, and got together to talk about their initiative.

Krathaus and Mankad live near Woodland Park along Little White Oak Bayou, and it bothered the both of them that it was full of trash, much of it plastic bags.

“Instead of just complaining about it we decided to do something. We started a petition to the City of Houston and Mayor Turner to create an ordinance against plastic bags,” the girls said.

Since then, they have testified and lobbied in Austin at the capitol, held press conferences, participated in rallies, attended Texas Supreme Court meetings. They have also done email and social media campaigns, wrote letters to the editors, and have been active members of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Their latest project is working with Community Cloth, a nonprofit dedicated to giving refugee women an income by sewing or knitting items such as clothing.

Krathaus and Mankad, with help from their parents, recently got a grant of $1,000 from the Pollination Project to employ refugee women to sew reusable grocery bags from up-cycled materials. They are planning on selling the bags at the Earth Day celebration at Discover Green.

“And this is just the beginning,” they said.

They noted that, because of their persistence, they find that lots of people already know who they are.

“So many people are invested in cleaning up the city. It makes us good to realize this,” they said.

Perhaps another inspiration for their idea of a plastic bag free world comes from Krathaus’ mother, who is from Ireland. Ireland passed a plastic bag tax in 2002, which caused the use of them to drop significantly.

“Ireland has a population of the greater Houston region. If they can do it, certainly we can,” the girls said.

Plastic bags can be harmful in a number of ways, according to the girls. The bags can harm wildlife, and choke the bayous and storm drains. The bags eventually make their way into the Gulf of Mexico where sea turtles mistake them for jellyfish. Since plastic takes a long time to break down, there is no shortage to the damage it can cause.

The Krathaus and Mankad families practice what they preach. When shopping, they use their own reusable bags, and when dining out, they bring their own food containers for leftovers and take out.

“It was hard at first, but it seems crazy not to do it,” they said.

Their hope is that the Texas Supreme Court rules in favor of cities in Texas being able to have their own plastic bag ordinances.

“If so, we will push city council and the Mayor very hard to create a bag ordinance,” Krathaus and Mankad said.

If the Supreme Court does not rule in favor, the girls will go back to the Texas Capitol and lobby and testify once more.

“We will fight to the end on this issue. Our lives, health and future are at stake,” the girls said.

Krathaus and Mankad listed a few steps to take to make an effort to become plastic bag free.

First, bring reusable bags everywhere. If the reusable bags are forgotten, then try to carry the items in your hands, use a box, or load all of your items directly into your car. Try to not use produce bags, straws and Styrofoam containers, and use a reusable water bottle.

“Just try to be aware of all the plastic we use, and take baby steps,” they said.

Krathaus and Mankad’s petition, and a blog detailing their efforts, can be found at

Hurricane Harvey’s toxic impact deeper than public told

Associated Press
By Justin Pritchard, Associated Press and Alex Stuckey, Houston Chronicle

A toxic onslaught from the nation’s petrochemical hub was largely overshadowed by the record-shattering deluge of Hurricane Harvey as residents and first responders struggled to save lives and property.

More than a half-year after floodwaters swamped America’s fourth-largest city, the extent of this environmental assault is beginning to surface, while questions about the long-term consequences for human health remain unanswered.

County, state and federal records pieced together by The Associated Press and The Houston Chronicle reveal a far more widespread toxic impact than authorities publicly reported after the storm slammed into the Texas coast in late August and then stalled over the Houston area.

Some 500 chemical plants, 10 refineries and more than 6,670 miles of intertwined oil, gas and chemical pipelines line the nation’s largest energy corridor.

Nearly half a billion gallons of industrial wastewater mixed with storm water surged out of just one chemical plant in Baytown, east of Houston on the upper shores of Galveston Bay.

Benzene, vinyl chloride, butadiene and other known human carcinogens were among the dozens of tons of industrial toxic substances released into surrounding neighborhoods and waterways following Harvey’s torrential rains.

Hurricane Harvey’s toxic impact on Houston was more widespread than publicly reported, an AP-Houston Chronicle investigation has found. In the more than 100 spills catalogued by reporters, environmental testing was limited.

In all, reporters catalogued more than 100 Harvey-related toxic releases — on land, in water and in the air. Most were never publicized, and in the case of two of the biggest ones, the extent or potential toxicity of the releases was initially understated.

Only a handful of the industrial spills have been investigated by federal regulators, reporters found.

Texas regulators say they have investigated 89 incidents, but have yet to announce any enforcement actions.

Testing by state and federal regulators of soil and water for contaminants was largely limited to Superfund toxic waste sites.

Based on widespread air monitoring, including flyovers, officials repeatedly assured the public that post-Harvey air pollution posed no health threat. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official in charge now says these general assessments did not necessarily reflect local “hotspots” with potential risk to people.

Regulators alerted the public to dangers from just two, well-publicized toxic disasters: the Arkema chemical plant northeast of Houston that exploded and burned for days, and a nearby dioxin-laden federal Superfund site whose protective cap was damaged by the raging San Jacinto River.

Samuel Coleman, who was the EPA’s acting regional administrator during Harvey, said the priority in the immediate aftermath was “addressing any environmental harms as quickly as possible as opposed to making announcements about what the problem was.”

In hindsight, he said, it might not have been a bad idea to inform the public about the worst of “dozens of spills.”

Local officials say the state’s industry-friendly approach has weakened efforts by the city of Houston and surrounding Harris County to build cases against and force cleanup by the companies, many of them repeat environmental offenders.

“The public will probably never know the extent of what happened to the environment after Harvey. But the individual companies of course know,” said Rock Owens, supervising environmental attorney for Harris County, home to Houston and 4.7 million residents.

The chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Bryan Shaw, declined when asked by lawmakers in January to identify the worst spills and their locations. He told a legislative subcommittee hearing he could not publicly discuss spills until his staff completed a review.

The amount of post-Harvey government testing contrasts sharply with what happened after two other major Gulf Coast hurricanes. After Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008, state regulators collected 85 sediment samples to measure the contamination; more than a dozen violations were identified and cleanups were carried out, according to a state review.

In Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters ravaged New Orleans in 2005, the EPA and Louisiana officials examined about 1,800 soil samples over 10 months, EPA records showed.

“Now the response is completely different,” said Scott Frickel, an environmental sociologist formerly at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Frickel, now at Brown University, called the Harvey response “unconscionable” given Houston’s exponentially larger industrial footprint.

Reporters covered some environmental crises as they happened, such as AP’s exclusive on the flooding of toxic waste sites and the Chronicle’s Arkema warnings before fires broke out. But the sheer quantity of spills was impossible to document in real time.

Academic researchers are now trying to fill in the gaps in environmental monitoring, helped by grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. One project, a Harvey-related public health registry for Houston, was funded just this month but is not yet underway.

“People are left in a state of limbo of not knowing if they were exposed or not — or if they were, what the implications are for their health,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, who oversaw federal public health responses to the Superstorm Sandy and Deepwater Horizon disasters while at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Scientists say the paucity of data also could hamstring efforts to prepare for and mitigate damage from future violent weather events that climatologists predict will happen with increasing frequency.


When it meets moisture, hydrogen chloride gas becomes hydrochloric acid, which can burn, suffocate and kill.

Between lulls in Harvey’s pounding torrents on Aug. 28, an 18-inch pipeline leak at Williams Midstream Services Inc. unleashed a plume of the chemical near the intersection of two major highways in La Porte, southeast of Houston, where the San Jacinto River meets the 50-mile ship channel. It’s the petrochemical corridor’s main artery that empties into Galveston Bay.

A toxic cloud spread about a quarter-mile in an industrial sector as firefighters and police rushed to shut down roads, blared neighborhood sirens and robo-dispatched phone and text messages warning people to stay indoors.

Two hours ticked by before a county hazardous materials response unit — lucky to find a road not under water — arrived and ended the danger with the help of a crew from a nearby plant.

The spill was among dozens barely noticed at the time, records show. A county pollution control inspector, Johnathan Martin, wrote in his report that he could not safely monitor the toxic plume but believed it did not reach homes less than a mile away. There were no reports of injuries.

On land, the deluge — five feet of rain in some spots — appears to have scoured the top soil, according to separate testing efforts by scientists from Texas A&M and Rice universities.

The Texas A&M collection of 24 samples — taken in September from lawns mainly in a neighborhood near Valero Energy Corp.’s refinery — turned up only low traces of petroleum and petrochemical-related compounds.

“As expected the rains washed most things out,” said Texas A&M research leader Anthony Knap.

Rice researchers tested soil at a school and park in Baytown, east across Upper Galveston Bay, where residents said floodwaters rushed in from the 3,400-acre ExxonMobil refinery and chemical plant. They also sampled in Galena Park, a community of 11,000 hemmed in by heavy industry along the ship channel, just east of downtown.

Only one of the nine samples collected by Rice researchers showed elevated levels of petroleum-related toxic substances, according to an independent chemical analysis funded by the AP-Chronicle collaboration. Collected in Galena Park, it showed the presence of benzo(a)pyrene, a known carcinogen, at levels just above what the EPA deems a cancer risk.

Jessica Chastain lives a block away.

During Harvey’s three-day downpour, the nearby Panther Creek swallowed Chastain’s home, forcing the 36-year-old mother and four of her children to swim across the street to the safety of her parents’ two-story house, through slimy brownish-black water that smelled like a “rotten sewer,” said Chastain. “It had a coat of film over it. I’m not sure what it was. It was probably oil.”

Her children — 15, 11, 9 and 6 — all developed skin infections and strep throat, she said.

Her youngest still “cries when it rains hard,” she said. “‘Is it going to flood?’ he asks.”

The creek, which empties into the nearby ship channel, had backed up from flooded chemical plants and tank farms.

A number of Harvey-related spills occurred near Chastain’s home, including the 460,000-gallon gasoline spill at a Magellan Midstream Partners tank farm and nearly 52,000 pounds of crude oil from a Seaway Crude Pipeline Inc. tank.

Samples taken in October at a Houston park upstream of the ship channel showed elevated levels of dioxins, PCBs and hazardous chemicals typically created in the burning of oil, coal and gas, said Jennifer Horney, an A&M epidemiology professor who conducted testing for the city.

Benzo(a)pyrene was among the chemicals found in sediment on the banks of Brays Bayou at the park, a popular recreation site with baseball diamonds, soccer pitches and bicycle pathways.

“It’s coal tar and it’s a known carcinogen and mostly you find it in industrial settings,” said Horney. “We know the ship channel — or the bayou — was (up) in that park.”

While worrisome, the levels at the park were not high enough to trigger a cleanup under EPA standards, she said. Neither Houston nor Texas A&M officials have publicly released those test results, which the city health department’s chief environmental science officer, Loren Raun, said showed “nothing of concern for human health risk.”

The surface soil scrubbing that scientists believe occurred during Harvey means contaminants likely migrated downstream, said Hanadi Rifai. The head of the University of Houston’s environmental engineering program, she has been studying pollution in the watershed for more than two decades.

“That soil ended up somewhere,” Rifai said. “The net result on Galveston Bay is going to be nothing short of catastrophic.”


Residents of the tidy, mostly Latino neighborhood off Old Industrial Road in Galena Park are accustomed to the foul odors that wind shifts can bring.

But no one told them about the gasoline spill at the Magellan terminal a mile away — one of more than a dozen Harvey-related releases in a two-mile radius. The release was initially reported to the Coast Guard at 42,000 gallons — and residents would only learn of it a week later through news reports. Not until 11 days after the spill did Magellan report that it was actually more than 10 times bigger.

Asked about the discrepancy, Magellan spokesman Bruce Heine said floodwaters prevented the company from accessing the ruptured tanks until Sept. 5. He said the company later removed 15 dump trucks of tainted soil.

The spill was reported to the Coast Guard on Thursday, Aug. 31 at 11:35 p.m. — six days after Harvey made landfall.

An explosion risk prompted workers to evacuate upwind as the nearly half-million gallons of gasoline gushed out failed storage tanks, state environmental and Coast Guard records show. The spill ranked as Texas’ largest reported Harvey-related venting of air pollutants, at 1,143 tons.
The local fire department put down foam to suppress the fumes, records revealed, and a police report described “a vapor cloud.”

Claudia Mendez, a 42-year-old housewife, said she later saw foam by the side of the road and wondered about its origin.

The fumes were so strong, Mendez said, “I thought my husband had brought the lawnmower gas can inside.”

Magellan has been cited for 11 environmental violations since 2002 by Texas regulators and fined more than $190,000, more than half in August 2012 for a single violation of air quality standards.

Its spill is among at least three post-Harvey releases about which Harris County officials have withheld information, saying they remain under investigation.

The second involves W&P Development Corp., owner of an industrial park where about 100,000 gallons of oily wastewater were reported to have spilled into the San Jacinto from Aug. 29 to Aug. 31. The site was formerly Champion Paper Mill and a landfill there received wastes including turpentine- and lead-contaminated soil and mercury until 2008. For most of 2015 and 2016, the property was in violation of federal anti-pollution laws, EPA records show.

A spokesman for W&P Development, Dennis Winkler, said the company later determined that a smaller amount — 30,000 gallons — had escaped from a water treatment plant when the river overtopped a berm.

The third site is Channel Biorefinery & Terminals, where some 80,000 gallons of methanol spilled from a tank rupture into Greens Bayou, which enters the ship channel just downstream of the Magellan terminal. Highly flammable and explosive, methanol can cause brain lesions and other disorders.

The property, once the site of the nation’s largest biofuels refinery, was in violation of federal hazardous waste-management rules the first half of 2017. Texas cited the property’s owners for failing to prove they could manage licensed wastes, including oily sludge and petroleum distillates, records show.

Dennis Frost, the on-site manager for Gulf Coast Energy, the tenant of Channel Biorefinery, said he and co-workers did their best to prevent the spills.

“They were impossible to contain,” he said. “The water here down by our facility was up over 20 feet.”


Companies are required under federal law to report spills to the state and federal government but not to counties, which are the first line of defense against industrial pollution.

Harris County pollution control investigators queried more than 150 plants on Harvey-related spills, but many did not provide estimates.
“Spill information is provided as a courtesy,” said Latrice Babin, deputy director of the county’s pollution control office. “Likewise, there is no requirement of notification of evacuation.”

The largest spill, by far, was at ExxonMobil Corp.’s Olefins Plant in Baytown, east of the ship channel. Two days after Harvey hit, some 457 million gallons of stormwater mixed with untreated wastewater, including oil and grease, surged into an adjacent creek.

The spill was not reported to the public. In a water quality report filed with the county and obtained through an open records request, ExxonMobil said “available information does not indicate any potential danger to human health or safety or the environment.”

It did not include results of third-party water testing that the company said had been done. The plant has a history of federal air pollution violations and reported emitting 228 tons of airborne pollutants during Harvey.

Other large spills found in official records include:
— More than 3,000 pounds of benzene from Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s Deer Park complex on the ship channel’s south bank. Initially, the company reported a half ton of phenol, which can burn skin and be potentially fatal, was spilled. It later revised that downward to just two pounds.
—About 34,000 pounds of sodium hydroxide, or lye, which can cause severe chemical burns, and unpermitted airborne emissions, including 28,000 pounds of benzene, from the Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. plant in Baytown, near where thousands of residents live along Cedar Bayou. A spokesman, Bryce Hallowell, said a containment pond kept about 38 percent of the lye from escaping the facility.
— About 60,000 tons of what Dow Chemical Co. called “non-hazardous biosolids” at the company’s plant in Deer Park. The company now says that roughly 50 tons of that consisted of biosolids and that the rest was “primarily” stormwater.

Yvette Arellano of the advocacy group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services surveyed the area by helicopter on Sept. 4.

She reported seeing flooded tank farms, fluorescent liquid streaming from Exxon’s outfalls, and refineries and chemical plants flaring gas intensely like giant candles.

“The entire skyscape looked like a birthday cake,” Arellano said.

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Global campaign challenges Starbucks to keep its promise to curb plastic pollution, create 100% recyclable cup

Leading environmental organizations launch “Starbucks: Break Free From Plastic” campaign to confront coffee giant on its plastic pollution problem prior to annual shareholder meeting in Seattle

AUSTIN, TX — Today, more than a dozen leading environmental organizations announced the launch of “Starbucks: Break Free From Plastic” — a global campaign demanding that Starbucks take accountability for its contribution to the growing plastic pollution crisis. Sign the petition here.

The campaign formed ahead of Starbucks’ 2018 annual shareholder meeting, where the coffee giant is urging its shareholders to vote “no” on a sustainability proposal by As You Sow. The proposal asks Starbucks to address its plastic pollution problem by developing stronger efforts to move toward sustainable packaging. View As You Sow’s argument in favor of the proposal.

Starbucks fails on sustainability pledges

The campaign is being launched amidst a backdrop of corporate pledges to address plastic pollution, including from McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. The campaign is demanding firm commitments from Starbucks on how it will address its plastic pollution problem.

In 2008, Starbucks pledged to make a 100% recyclable paper cup and sell 25% of drinks in reusable cups by 2015. To date, Starbucks has failed to produce a 100% recyclable paper cup, and currently serves only 1.4% of drinks in reusable cups.

“Starbucks serves an astounding 4+ billion paper cups each year, most of which end up in the trash because their plastic lining makes them unrecyclable in most places. That’s a disgraceful amount of plastic pollution ending up in our local landfills. It’s time for Starbucks to start living up to its promises.” -Ross Hammond,

Starbucks plans massive global growth

Despite knowing its environmental impact, Starbucks has pledged to dramatically expand its presence in Asia in 2018 — with no plan to address its plastic waste. Because of this inaction, governments are being forced to step up. A parliamentary committee in the UK recently proposed a “latte levy” on single-use cups to help address the growing plastic pollution problem, and the City of Vancouver, BC is considering imposing a fee on unrecyclable, plastic-lined cups.

“Starbucks has pledged to open one store every 15 hours in China in 2018. CEO Kevin Johnson continues to turn a blind eye to his company’s contribution to our global plastic pollution problem even as the coffee giant continues to open stores at an astonishing pace.” –Sondhya Gupta, SumOfUs

Starbucks part of global plastic pollution problem

Starbucks cups, lids, and iconic green straws make up a visible portion of the catastrophic plastic pollution in our oceans. In the marine environment, plastics break down into small indigestible particles that birds and marine animals mistake for food, resulting in illness and death.

“Starbucks needs to stop being part of the problem and instead be part of a Zero Waste solution. They need to promote the reduction, reuse and recycling of materials instead of being the poster child for the global ‘to-go’ disposable coffee cup culture. Right now, they are contributing to the trashing of our communities, waterways, Gulf and oceans.  – Robin Schneider, Texas Campaign for the Environment

“Americans use half a billion plastic straws every day. That’s an unfathomable amount. These plastic straws are consistently among the top items collected during beach cleanups. Starbucks’ green straws may be iconic, but this staggering amount of plastic pollution is simply unacceptable.”  -Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, 5 Gyres Institute

“Each minute, the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic ends up in the ocean, and by 2050, there is projected to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight. Starbucks needs to take immediate steps to #breakfreefromplastic before our global plastic pollution problem overwhelms our oceans and marine life.” -Von Hernandez, Break Free From Plastic

“Plastics are a symptom of our throw-away culture. Companies like Starbucks need to take responsibility for the harm to people and the environment that comes from irresponsible use of a material for minutes that is designed to last lifetimes. We need them to help build a culture of stewardship among consumers and businesses.” -Jamie Rhodes, UPSTREAM

The campaign is calling on Starbucks to address its plastic pollution in 5 specific ways:

  • Create a 100% recyclable paper cup without a plastic lining.
  • Reduce plastic pollution by eliminating single-use plastics like straws.
  • Promote reusable cups and encourage customers to change their habits.
  • Recycle cups and food packaging in all stores worldwide.
  • Report publicly on the type and amount of plastics used in packaging.

The campaign includes 5 Gyres, Care2, Texas Campaign for the Environment, Clean Water Action, CREDO, Plastic Pollution Coalition,, The Story of Stuff Project,  UPSTREAM,  Captain Planet Foundation, Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation, Plastik Diet Kantong, Heirs to Our Oceans, Wild at Heart Taiwan, and a variety of organizations participating under the Break Free From Plastic global movement.