Environmentalists push back on Phillips 66’s offshore crude oil plant

Environmental groups say they will fight Phillips 66’s plans to build a Bluewater crude oil export terminal off the coast of Port Aransas.

The Coastal Bend Sierra Club and other groups are asking the EPA to give the public more time to speak out on the proposed Bluewater Texas Terminals’ offshore deepwater port.

Critics say the project is environmentally risky and has the potential to disrupt fishing and birding, both popular activities that draw thousands of tourists to the region each year.

“The environmental and safety threats to our coastal community by projects like Bluewater are quite real,” said Kathryn Masten, executive director of the Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association.

Last week, the Port Authority approved a lease agreement and pipeline easement for the project, a joint venture of Houston-based Phillips 66 and Trafigura Group Pte. Ltd., a Dutch company.

The project will consist of two single-point mooring buoys stationed offshore.

There, Very Large Crude Carriers, or VLCCs, and other vessels will be able to load Permian and Eagle Ford shale crude oil that will be fed to it through a series of pipelines.

The project still requires an air permit, and is subject to a final investment decision by the two companies.

Corpus Christi’s port, the nation’s third largest based on its cargo tonnage, has long been a focal player in the transportation of crude oil and other petrochemicals. Its role has become even more pronounced and important since the December 2015 repeal of the decades-old ban on crude oil exports.

“This one export facility would put out more smog-causing pollution than 28 major refineries in Texas. Some of these are cancer-causing chemicals such as highly toxic benzene,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Rich Johnson, a spokesman for Phillips 66 Midstream, said the terminal would create jobs and strengthen the local economy.

Company officials performed extensive surveys to minimize impacts to the environment, Johnson said. Air modeling and other studies were performed as part of the permitting process, and they showed the project wouldn’t impair air quality and public health.

It also would reduce the need for offshore reverse lightering — the process of transferring cargo from one vessel to another.

“Loading crude at a deepwater port is a safer, more efficient alternative to reverse lightering while also reducing nearshore ship traffic and inshore port congestion,” Johnson said.


Year   No. of vessels 

2020*  5,238
2019  6,874
2018  6,467
2017  6,482

* Traffic from January to September 2020


Year   Tonnage 

2020*  117,5448,298
2019 122,170,429
2018  106,237,407
2017  102,391,848

* Tonnage from January to September 2020

TCE Statement on Dumping of Houston Residents’ Recycling

Press Statement
Brittani Flowers
Gulf Coast Program Director

Texas Campaign for the Environment has been organizing locally for more than a decade to ensure that all residents served by the City of Houston have recycling, so we are outraged that an investigation found that 2.6 million pounds of recyclables were put in garbage trucks and taken to a landfill instead of the recycling plant.

We call on Mayor Turner, the City Council and the Solid Waste Department to provide residents with a full accounting and what happened and full accountability for city staff that allowed this to occur. City officials must respect the efforts of residents who dutifully sort recyclable materials in their homes and be able to guarantee that it’s going to our brand new recycling facility.

It wasn’t until 2015 that all residents served by city collection trucks had recycling bins. It took thousands of Houston residents writing letters over the years, many people coming to City Hall to have their voices heard. Texas Campaign for the Environment helped mobilize residents again when glass was dropped from the program and it was restored in the new recycling contract because of this outcry. We continue to press for expanded Zero Waste services and policies and are extremely frustrated with this setback.

Our message to Houston residents is stay with this effort and continue to demand the services and policies that will make Houston a more sustainable city. This is the time to redouble our efforts, not give up in disgust. We encourage Houston residents to take action now.


According to KHOU 11, their investigation obtained daily collection data forms from the Solid Waste Department from January 1 through the end of May. The daily logs are filled out by each truck driver and show the type of material collected, the times it was collected, and the disposal site for each load. Those forms, cross-referenced with a database of corresponding landfill logs, reveal a city-wide, system-wide pattern of recycling violations. At least 123 city trucks dumped 333 loads or partial loads of recyclables at a landfill or garbage transfer facility, which ultimately sends materials to a landfill.

2019 Legislature Wraps up with Wins and Losses

By Robin Schneider
TCE Executive Director

In 2019 Texas Campaign for the Environment worked with neighbors of waste facilities or proposed waste facilities to get two good bills passed into law.

HB 1331 by Rep. Ed Thompson will raise the application fee for solid waste permits so that taxpayers and consumers are footing less of the bill for polluting facilities. That bill has been signed by the Governor.

HB 1435 also by Rep. Ed Thompson will require TCEQ to actually visit a proposed waste site before they approve its permit and verify some of the information in its application. This bill requires rule-making and the TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker stated that his agency plans to do a wider look at the rules on trash facilities after the session ended.

These bills were important steps forward for improving the waste industry in Texas and they send a message to our environmental agency that they need to act to make even more changes soon.

TCE helped defeat some legislation that would have made it more difficult to oppose pollution permits and pre-empt local governments when it came to waste facilities and tree ordinances, for instance.

Unfortunately, some bad legislation was passed despite objections from TCE and our supporters and allies HB 2771 to begin the process of dumping waste from fracking into Texas waterways. There were also many other laws we and allies sought that went nowhere because special interests got them bottled up.

This was the session after the monumental climate disaster of Hurricane Harvey. Instead of getting down to business on how to prevent future loss of life and property damage, the state legislators passed HB 3557 a bill to over-criminalize people who are putting their bodies on the line to protect our planet and the people and other living things on it. People who engage in peaceful and non-violent action now face felonies.

On Sunday, filibuster could have killed this bill but not one Senator was willing to step up and defend our civil liberties and the rights of planet protectors.

Just last Wednesday a lawsuit was filed a similar law in Louisiana. It’s highly likely that our taxpayer dollars are going to be spent defending this unconstitutional law in Texas too. This was a travesty.

The supporters of this bill used under-handed methods and frankly lied to advocates to pass this bill. It’s no exaggeration to say that powerful polluting industries such as the oil and gas industry own the Capitol building.

Will PARD ever get enough money to implement recycling in the parks?

Austin Monitor
by Jessi  Devenyns

Photo by Dennis Yang made available through a Creative Commons license.

In every Austin home, there is the option to trash your waste or recycle it (many even have a composting option available). So why aren’t Austinites given the same opportunity at the city of Austin’s parks and recreational facilities?

At the April 11 meeting of the Zero Waste Advisory Commission, Liana Kallivoka, the assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department, provided an answer to this question. “There is an undeniable financial block for the implementation,” she explained.

“At the rate we’re going, we’re going to be in the 2020s without a full implementation of recycling,” said Commissioner Kaiba White, who proposed a resolution to recommend that in 2019 City Council fund the initiative to expand the recycling program in city of Austin parks and recreational facilities. The resolution was passed unanimously.

The city’s Universal Recycling Ordinance states that “all commercial (including City) properties in Austin are required to have recycling.” However, open spaces, including public parks, are not included in the current ordinance.

That is not to say that the city doesn’t recycle. Currently, recycling is available at administrative offices, recreation centers, some pools, museums and cultural centers, and special events at parks. However, Parks and Recreation wants a comprehensive program in all its outdoor facilities, and to do so it has partnered with Austin Resource Recovery.

Commissioner Joshua Blaine commended the department’s efforts to go above and beyond. “Recycling in parks is not explicitly included in the Universal Recycling Ordinance, and yet you’re making efforts to do so anyway,” he said. He suggested that perhaps amending the ordinance to include these facilities would “help with budget concerns.”

Another suggestion to offset costs came from Commissioner Amanda Masino, who proposed repurposing the proceeds that Parks and Recreation receives from festivals and events that are held on city spaces to fund the expansion of recycling efforts. The department receives several dollars from each ticket sold at public festivals.

Andrew Dobbs from the Texas Campaign for the Environment noted that another source of funding could come directly from Council members. Council Member Alison Alter provided funding for recycling in her District 10 parks.

Kallivoka explained that the department needs $250,000 to roll out a three-phase recycling implementation in city parkland. Each pair of trash-recycling bins costs $1,100 to purchase and install, and there are 2,500 trash-only receptacles to replace in city parks.

“I believe we are a creative, innovative community, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel on this,” said Chair Gerry Acuna. He proposed involving private businesses in the initiative. “Let them have some ownership in this. It could provide a lot of funding,” he said.

Regardless of how Council chooses to do it, commissioners agreed that Parks and Recreation is going to require a significant addition of funding for this initiative.

Dobbs noted, “The good news is that we’re at a point where everyone wants to do this.”

Two Dallas Bars Ditching Plastic Straws

GreenSource DFW
By Julie Thibodeaux

Dallas-based restaurant chain Snappy Salads was one of the first North Texas businesses to switch from plastic to paper straws in 2014. Courtesy of Chris Dahlander.

The grassroots campaign against plastic straws is gaining traction in North Texas. Two Dallas bar owners recently announced they are switching from plastic to paper straws this month.

Nell Scarborough, owner of Liquid Zoo, and Lee Daugherty, owner of Alexandre’s Bar, in Dallas, said they both made the decision based on environmental concerns.

“I’d seen the news story about how plastic straws are ruining the ocean and hurting marine life,” said Scarborough. “I said ‘We need to do away with this. I’m going to take a step forward.’”

Following her decision, Scarborough made a presentation to the Dallas Tavern Guild, an association of LGBT bars and nightclubs, and urged others to follow her lead.

Daugherty, also a member of the Dallas Tavern Guild, said he had already been researching ways to achieve zero waste. He’d performed a trash audit with help from Texas Campaign for the Environment and learned the majority of his bar’s waste could be recycled. When he heard about Scarborough’s plan, it gave him the nudge he needed.

“After recyclables, the stuff we’re left with is mostly beverage napkins and single use plastic straws. When Liquid Zoo made the announcement, we praised them for leading on this.”

He admitted there are challenges that may keep some business owners from jumping on the band wagon. Paper straws are not yet easily obtained through traditional suppliers and still cost more than plastic straws.

Chris Dahlander, owner of Dallas-based Snappy Salads, a local paper straw pioneer, confirmed that paper straws cost about three cents per straw as opposed to .06 cents per the plastic ones. They also require a lid with a bigger hole for the straw so it doesn’t get pinched. He said making the switch in 2014 at Snappy Salads, which now has 17 locations across DFW, Austin and Houston, required a commitment to planet over profit.

“I figured we saved the world from 1.3 millon plastic straws since we started using paper straws,” he said.

In addition to paper straws, Snappy Salad uses biodegradable takeout containers, cups and utensils as well as LED lighting and countertops made from recycled bottles. Many customers appreciate his eco-friendly practices. He’s also weathered complaints.

“Some detractors are very vocal,” said Dahlander. “They feel affronted, offended and downright mad.”

A video of two researchers removing a four-inch plastic straw from a Ridley sea turtle went viral on social media. Courtesy of YouTube.

One customer wrote him saying he hated the paper straws so much that he brings his own plastic straw to the restaurant.

“I’ll send them the YouTube video of the turtle having the plastic straw removed from his nose,” said Dahlander. “8 times out of 10, they’ll say ‘I didn’t know that.’ Most are just not aware or they don’t want to believe the stories.”

Dahlander refers to the heartwrenching video shot by marine biologist and Texas A&M doctoral student Christine Feggener and fellow researcher Nathan Robinson. It shows the pair extracting a four-inch plastic straw from a Ridley sea turtle they captured off the coast of Costa Rica.

“Plastic pollution is a big reality for me, at least, because I see a lot of plastic and how turtles are affected by plastic,” Feggener told the Tampa Bay Times. “But not everybody lives that reality.”

According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, more than 500 million plastic straws are used each day in the U.S. That’s enough to wrap the globe 2.5 times every day. They are not typically recycled, primarily due to their small size. Most end up in landfills, on roadsides or in waterways and oceans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plastic straws are one of the top five most common items found on shores during International Coastal Cleanups.

“We’re seeing a lot in the news about plastic waste in the ocean,” said Corey Troiani, director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment. “It’s becoming a more visual problem, which is why were seeing this kind of response. People are beginning to connect the dots about where these things are going.”

Dahlander said he feels proud he’s no longer contributing to those statistics. Simply refusing a plastic straw in a restaurant will make those around you think about the issue, he added.

“If we all do our small part, we can change how the earth is reacting to our impact. As far as I can tell, we have one planet Earth, we need to take care of it.”

Clean up of San Jacinto Waste Pits moving forward

Houston Chronicle
By Alex Stuckey

A plan for designing the cleanup of the San Jacinto Waste Pits has been agreed upon by the Environmental Protection Agency and the companies responsible for the contamination, which means it likely will happen sooner rather than later.

The EPA on Monday announced the agreement, the next step toward removing about 212,000 cubic yards of material contaminated with cancer-causing dioxin from the pits. The work is estimated to cost $115 million.

Monday’s announcement “is a big deal for us and the community,” said Rock Owens, an environmental attorney for Harris County. “This is a very important step – now we’re officially on to the step where the (companies) are cooperating.”

The EPA, along with The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, will oversee the design work for the cleanup, which will be completed over the course of 29 months by the responsible companies — International Paper Co. and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., the release said.

In a statement, International Paper Co. said it “is committed to protecting public health and the environment and we believe that remediation planning for the San Jacinto site must be rigorous, transparent and science-based and lead to engineering standards that will protect the river and the community.”

McGinnes also provided a statement, saying it “will continue to work collaboratively with the Agency and other responsible parties to ensure a safe, protective and effective remedial design for the site.”

Owens said the county will participate during this phase of the cleanup, providing comments on both the design and, eventually, the construction phase.

After the EPA announced in October the removal of tons of toxins from the waste pits, there initially was concern that the companies would fight, resulting in years of litigation and cleanup delays.

In fact, the companies responsible for the cleanup previously said they would oppose a removal plan as too risky for the environment, which could have forced the EPA to go to court to carry out the plan.

Given the companies’ initial objections, Jackie Young, founder of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance Inc., said she’s happy to hear of the agreement and “cautiously optimistic as we move forward.”

Though the announcement is good news, Scott Jones, director of advocacy for the Galveston Bay Foundation, said the foundation “will remain vigilant until the last of the wastes are removed.”

The EPA’s removal announcement in October came just two weeks after officials confirmed that a concrete cap used to cover the pits since 2011 had sprung a leak during Hurricane Harvey’s flooding.

After Harvey, agency officials found dioxin in sediment near the pits at a level more than 2,000 times the EPA standard for cleanup. Subsequent testing, done after the cap was repaired, showed far lower levels of dioxin in that area, officials said in a December meeting.

U.S. Rep. Pete Olson said in a statement Monday that he’s pleased to see state and federal officials taking this step.

“Our community deserves to know the water is clean and safe,” he added. “I look forward to seeing this site addressed as quickly and safely as possible so that folks don’t have to worry about this in the future.”

The waste pits became a federal Superfund site in 2008.

The U.S. Department of Justice and EPA now will start working with the companies to agree on methods for the cleanup.

“Let’s lay down the sword, pick up the shovel and start digging,” Owens said.

Abbott lifts post-Harvey suspension of environmental regulations

Houston Chronicle
By Alex Stuckey

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office on Thursday lifted the suspension of environmental regulations put in place almost seven months ago as Hurricane Harvey bore down on Texas.

On Aug. 28, three days after Harvey began pummeling the Houston area, Abbott suspended many environmental regulations relating to air pollution, wastewater and fuel standards for vehicles.

The governor’s Harvey disaster declaration suspended environmental reporting and record-keeping rules as well as liability for unauthorized emissions for the duration of the disaster declaration, an order most recently renewed on March 16. A spokesman for the state environmental agency said the suspensions apply only when rules would hinder disaster response.

Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Staff / Houston Chronicle Shell Deer Park refinery is one of the plants that reported major pollution releases during and after Hurricane Harvey.

But on Thursday, James Person, assistant general counsel in the governor’s office, sent a letter to the TCEQ agreeing with them that it was time to lift the suspension.

“The TCEQ now asserts that the suspension is no longer necessary,” Person wrote. “Based on the TCEQ’s assertion and our office’s review, the Office of the Governor hereby grants TCEQ’s request to terminate the temporary suspension of those rules.”

The Chronicle obtained a copy of the letter late Thursday night. TCEQ could not immediately be reached for comment and it’s not clear when TCEQ asked for the suspension to be lifted.


Advocacy Groups Say Post-Harvey Pollution Waivers Should Be Ended

Houston Public Media
By Travis Bubenik

The governor’s office says the waivers are under “constant evaluation”, and will be ended when they’re no longer needed.

Advocacy groups say Texas needs to reinstate pollution rules that have been suspended since Hurricane Harvey. They argue the waivers just aren’t needed more than seven months after the storm.

Limits on multiple types of pollution are still not being enforced in the Harvey-hit counties where disaster declarations remain in effect. That includes the Houston area, home to many refineries and chemical plants, which haven’t been required to report air pollution violations since the storm.

“That means that companies are voluntarily keeping track of their emissions,” said Rosanne Barone with the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Companies have acknowledged excess pollution in recent months, but since they don’t have to, Barone is worried the data could be incomplete.

A view of ExxonMobil’s Baytown, TX refinery (Photo by Dave Fehling of Houston Public Media)

Governor Greg Abbott can reinstate the rules, or they’ll go back into effect when the disaster declarations are lifted.

“The purpose of waiving regulations was to aid Houston, Harris County and the entire affected region and allow them to more swiftly respond and restore their communities,” said Abbott spokesperson Mac Walker. “This is a process under constant evaluation, and to the extent the waivers are no longer needed, they will end.”


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 alex.stuckey@chron.com. 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 bagfreebayous.org.