It’s bad enough that Southeast Texans have to deal with devastating wind or rain every now and then, but another problem has been cropping up with natural disasters: more pollution from petrochemical plants. It happened during Harvey, when some storage tanks east of Houston were flooded, now it has happened again with Tropical Depression Imelda.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said Imelda’s flooding “forced” some companies to discharge unauthorized emissions of pollutants. And not just a little, but 100,000 pounds of it from chemical plants and refineries in our region, including cancer-causing 1,3 butadiene, benzene and ethylene oxide. Unfortunately, the largest polluter was Exxon Mobil in Beaumont, which released about 36,000 pounds of pollutants.
The unauthorized releases occurred because of various reasons such as electrical outages, floating roof tank failures or equipment malfunctions. Gov. Greg Abbott even temporarily suspended dozens of environmental rules, as he did after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
This is just not acceptable. We are sympathetic to the challenges that these storms bring, but a lot of this seems preventable. The mostly large and highly profitable corporations that run these facilities should have better plans to ramp down or suspend activities during severe storms — plans that don’t include more pollution. They can easily afford the fairly minor costs.
One obvious protection is generators or alternative power sources for certain parts of refineries when disasters threaten. That can allow pollution-reduction equipment to keep functioning, and electrical power is usually restored within a few days when these disasters strike.
Company officials need to view this as a problem that can be prevented, not just something which happens. These additional pollutants could cause health problems for people who live here — when our current state of air quality is hardly pristine.
John Beard, chair of the Port Arthur Community Action Network and a retired Exxon Mobil employee, summed up the situation well when he said, “The community understands the importance of jobs and to have gasoline and fuels to live in this modern day, but what is the human cost of doing that?”
That cost should not be any higher than necessary. The next time a natural disaster strikes, area petrochemical plants should be ready to ensure that no additional pollution is released. Mother Nature can bring enough bad news in these situations; human-caused problems should not make things worse.