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As Catastrophic Flooding Hits Houston, Fears Grow of Pollution from Oil Refineries & Superfund Sites

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A catastrophic storm has hit Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city and home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the United States. The crisis began on Friday when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas. It was the most powerful hurricane to strike the state in more than 50 years. Much of the damage has been caused by the massive rainfall, with parts of Texas already receiving 30 inches of rain. That could top 50 inches in the coming days. Entire highways in Houston are now underwater. The storm has caused five reported deaths, but the death toll is expected to rise. Thousands of people are still stranded in their homes, waiting to be rescued. Meanwhile, the city of Dallas prepares to turn its convention center into a mega-shelter to host 5,000 evacuees. The National Weather Service released a statement on Sunday saying, “This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.” We speak with Bryan Parras, an organizer for the Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign with the Sierra Club in Houston, Texas. He helped found the environmental justice group t.e.j.a.s.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, joined by Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz, a Houston native.

RENÉE FELTZ: Good morning, and thank you, Amy. And good morning to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world, and potentially in Houston, underwater.

A catastrophic storm has hit Houston, Texas, and the flooding is expected to only worsen in the coming days. Houston is the nation’s fourth-largest city and home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the United States. The crisis began on Friday when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit the state in more than 50 years. But much of the damage has not been caused by the wind or tides, but by the massive rainfall. Some parts of Texas have already received 30 inches of rain and could top 50 inches. Entire highways in Houston are now underwater.

AMY GOODMAN: According to The Washington Post, the storm has already dumped more than 9 trillion gallons of water, enough water to fill the Great Salt Lake in Salt Lake City twice. And meteorologists project another 5 to 10 trillion gallons of water could be dumped on the region in coming days, potentially making this the worst flooding disaster in U.S. history. To compound matters, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have begun releasing water from two large reservoirs, which will increase flooding of homes downtown near Buffalo Bayou, parts of which are already flooded.

On Sunday, the National Weather Service released a statement saying, quote, “This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown beyond anything experienced,” unquote. And the damage has not only been in Houston. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, reports the storm has impacted 50 counties in Texas, as well as parts of Louisiana. This is Brock Long, FEMA administrator, speaking this morning.

BROCK LONG: We need citizens to be involved. Texas, this is a landmark event. We have not seen an event like this. You could not draw this forecast up. You could not dream this forecast up. It’s been a very challenging effort for the National Weather Service, who’s been putting out great information. We’ve been telling people that this is coming. It’s still ongoing. But you couldn’t—you couldn’t draw this situation up. The bottom line is, is that it’s going to continue on. We need the whole community, not only the federal government forces, but this is a whole community effort from all levels of government, and it’s going to require the citizens getting involved.

RENÉE FELTZ: The storm has caused five reported deaths, but the death toll is expected to rise. Thousands of people are still stranded in their homes, waiting to be rescued, many by volunteers who brought their own boats to help. One rescue operation took place at a nursing home in Dickinson, Texas, after a photo went viral showing elderly residents sitting waist-deep in water. Many neighborhoods may be uninhabitable for weeks or longer. The city of Dallas is preparing to turn its convention center into a mega-shelter to host some 5,000 evacuees. Displaced residents have also been gathering at the Houston convention center.

DISPLACED RESIDENT: I was in Magnolia Park in the transit center. And they put us off the bus in knee-high water. So, when the wind starts blowing, I almost lost my dog. I put him—the bike went down the street. An HPD officer had seen what was happening, and he came to our aid. If it wasn’t for the HPD officer, we would have been swept away.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s believed there are thousands of people at that Houston convention center. President Trump is expected to visit the region on Tuesday.

We go now to Houston, where we’re joined by Bryan Parras, an organizer for Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign with the Sierra Club in Houston, Texas. He helped found the environmental justice group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, known as t.e.j.a.s. And joining us from San Diego, David Helvarg, executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group, author of several books, including Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes.

But let’s begin with Bryan in Houston. We’re speaking to you on Skype. We’re very glad you can even communicate with us today. Talk about the extent of the damage. As we talk about Buffalo Bayou, for people who don’t live in Houston, I think it’s hard for them to even understand the geography of Houston and what actually is taking place in this unprecedented both rainfall and flooding, the flooding only expected to get worse.

BRYAN PARRAS: Yeah. Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Renée.

Well, you know, Buffalo Bayou, let’s start there. That’s one of the—the iconic bayou of Houston, Texas. And it crosses from the Westside of Houston to the Eastside of Houston and then becomes the Houston Ship Channel as it empties out into Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. But we’ve seen already extensive flooding along the bayous on the Westside. And my concern is, where I live, on the Eastside, because of the many, many petrochemical facilities, storage tanks and other hazardous sites that line that same bayou for 30, 40 miles.

RENÉE FELTZ: Bryan, thanks so much for joining us this morning there from Houston’s East End. I wanted to ask you—I know you from KPFT, where I was a news director for many years, including during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. And I know that you have been documenting for a long time the pollution that comes from these refineries in normal circumstances. You give a “toxic tour” of some of these refineries. And now, you’ve been shooting video of some of the releases that they may have been making since the storm began on Friday. You shot footage that showed some of this release on Friday, I believe. Maybe you can describe what you shot and describe what you’re seeing. And is there a smell in the air from some of these releases?

BRYAN PARRAS: Yeah, thank you. So, on normal rain events, we know that these facilities, which are decades old, have situations where they have to shut down to prevent and avoid these catastrophic explosions and events. Unfortunately, you know, it happens time and time again. So we are very vigilant about keeping an eye on these facilities, because they are often not penalized for doing that either, and do nothing to mitigate these situations from happening over and over and over again.

So, Friday, we were out just checking some of these facilities and other sites that we’re also concerned about. And there was an event at Texas Petrochemical, I believe, where there was a flare event happening. And later that night, there were, for hours—for hours—really, really strong chemical odors from East Houston all the way to even the downtown area. And this was something that was discussed and talked about on social media, and, you know, not talked about, not discussed on the news here in Houston.

Now, we did hear later that all of the facilities, all of the refineries went into voluntary shutdown mode. And when that happens, they often have to go through the process of burning off these excess chemicals. But it’s a dirty burn. So you can see, actually, the black smoke, and that’s what we captured in the pictures and the video.


BRYAN PARRAS: Unfortunately, that adds, you know, thousands of pounds of cancer-causing chemicals to the air.

AMY GOODMAN: Bryan, can you talk about Houston’s underwater Superfund site and what you’re concerned about there, and also the disparate impact of a storm? I mean, of course, this is affecting everyone, but especially in areas like you’re describing, who lives in these areas. But first, that underwater Superfund site?

BRYAN PARRAS: Right. So there’s a very well-known Superfund site underwater with dioxin.
It’s the San Jacinto Waste Pits. And a good friend of ours, Jackie, has been doing some work in that area. It’s near Baytown, near one of the largest refineries in the country, owned by Exxon. There’s also Chevron down the road. And this bayou, the San Jacinto bayou, is just another vein of water that pushes out into Galveston Bay.

And there was this old legacy pollutants from a paper mill that has sort of just left their toxins in the ground. And eventually, you know, it was flooded. And there it remains. And the EPA and other agencies are in the process of cleaning that up. But as they go through their long, lengthy process of doing that, we’ve had several rain events. And each time we have a rain event, this contamination is being spread into communities, homes, neighborhoods, and further exposing more and more people.

And we know that we have elevated levels of cancers all along these areas. There have been many reports to show increased rates of childhood leukemia, if you live within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel, for example. So, you know, the information is out there. We know that these chemicals are causing cancers and other life-debilitating ailments to the people who live adjacent to them.

RENÉE FELTZ: Bryan, you’ve lived through many of these storms in Houston and helped document what happened. I wanted to ask you about reports we’re hearing about ExxonMobil evacuating their workers from the region’s offshore oil drilling platforms in the Gulf, right there off the coast of Houston, in Texas, in Galveston and surrounding areas. During Hurricane Katrina and Rita, these drilling platforms, that have now been evacuated, spilled more than 700,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf there. What are you hearing now about evacuations of these platforms? Have you heard yet about any leaks?

BRYAN PARRAS: I haven’t heard of any leaks yet. But we do know that they did evacuate all of the offshore workers that were in the path of the storm. And we know that there’s been less production here in the region. Houston is a huge, huge center for producing oil and gas for the rest of the country.

RENÉE FELTZ: Have you heard much yet there on the ground—even though the talk is mostly about rescuing people, has there been much talk yet about the impact this could have on fuel prices throughout the country? And talk a little bit about—just as we wrap up—a little bit on this point, about what are these refineries refining, and where is it coming from, and where is it going, to give people an idea of how this fits into other issues we’ve covered, for example, with pipelines like the Dakota Access pipeline, for example.

BRYAN PARRAS: Right. You know, this could be an entire show, Renée, as you know. But the Houston Ship Channel and refining area receives oil and gas from as far away as the Dakotas. But we also have production in our own state—Permian Basin, where my parents are from. So there’s oil coming from West Texas, a lot of new fracked oil coming into the area. And, of course, there’s even oil imported from different parts of the world.

And we’ve been looking at and concerned about even increased plans of bringing oil from places like Alberta, Canada, with the tar sands, and, more recently, the Dakota Access pipeline, sort of helping aid that. We’ve got so much here already. And I don’t think that they’re doing enough dealing with the impacts that we already have seen, which is evident right now. There is no reason why we should be having these flaring events, that are literally gassing communities along the Ship Channel.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Bryan, you’re using the hashtag #AJustHarveyRecovery. Explain this hashtag.

BRYAN PARRAS: Yeah, so, in New Orleans, after Katrina, there was a very, very big lesson learned that the issues of injustice intersect in so many different ways. You know, these catastrophes and disasters are not just environmental disasters. They’re housing disasters. They’re access to services. They’re immigration issues of injustice, and so many—worker justice, wage theft. You know, I could go on and on. And so, what we’re doing is keeping an eye on all of these very important issues that impact vulnerable and often unheard communities that are exploited in these disasters.

And I know you’ve talked to Naomi Klein about disaster capitalism. You know, these are sorts of events where predators come in and prey on vulnerable communities, so the elderly, the homeless, even prison populations that are evacuated, not before the storm comes, but as the water is rising in the jail cells. And so, these are the reasons we’re using the hashtag, so that folks can contribute and make aware these vulnerable populations and communities as the storm unfolds.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bryan, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Thank you for joining us during this very difficult time in your city, Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States. Bryan Parras is an organizer for the Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign with the Sierra Club in Houston, Texas, helped found the environmental justice group t.e.j.a.s.

When we come back, we go to David Helvarg. You hear nonstop coverage on the networks of this catastrophe, this historic, horrifying event that’s taking place in Texas, being hit by the storm and flooding. But there are two words you will not hear those meteorologists say very much, and they are “climate change.” They are “global warming.” We’ll talk to David Helvarg about the connection. Stay with us.

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