Harvey damages petrochemical refineries, releasing thousands of pounds of airborne pollutants

By Nsikan Akpan, for PBS.org

Aug 31, 2017

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Following two days of tweets and public reports of chemical odors in Houston, ExxonMobil disclosed Tuesday that two of its refineries accidentally released 12,000 pounds of hazardous vapors into the air after being damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

But these disclosures from Exxon represent just four of more than a dozen reports of storm-related emissions filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since Monday that involve chemical companies near Houston. And documents filed with the commission indicate ExxonMobil’s emissions events were far from the largest.

On Sunday, the energy giant shut down operations at its petrochemical facility in Baytown, Texas — the second largest refinery in the U.S. The facility can produce up 560,000 barrels of oil per day, according to the Houston Chronicle. Pasadena Terminal, a 174-acre facility near the Houston Ship Channel, reported the release of 394,000 pounds of hazardous chemical vapors between Sunday and Monday.

New Republic reported Monday that environmental advocates and residents noticed chemical smells over Houston’s East End district, which borders Harris County’s industrial hub. These reports were not altogether surprising. Chemical plants, refineries and natural gas operations are known to release large quantities of chemicals into the atmosphere when they start up or shut down.

During its planned scale down early Sunday morning, Exxon’s Baytown campus recorded a pair (first and second) of controlled emission releases involving a variety of chemicals, from carbon monoxide to benzene to sulfur dioxide. Most of these emissions fell within legal limits. But Harvey’s heavy rains also sank a floating roof on an outdoor tank, prompting a third, unplanned emissions event later that afternoon.

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