Protecting Houston Communities from Floods and Chemical Disasters

Public Citizen News / November-December 2019

By Michael Coleman

This article appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

Houston keeps getting battered by disasters caused by climate change and the petrochemical industry, so Public Citizen – with an office in Austin and staff in Houston – is stepping in to help.

Climate-Fueled Disasters

In September, Tropical Storm Imelda dumped up to 43 inches of rain on communities in southeast Texas. That was just two years after Hurricane Harvey and its record-breaking rainfall ravaged Houston.

Some Houston-area communities are more protected from flooding than others. In 2018, Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion flood mitigation bond package, but the plan excluded some poorer      communities that needed the most help.

The Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience – a Texas-based partnership consisting of Public Citizen and 11 other public health and environmental organizations – pushed for a fair plan that would minimize flooding risks for all families, regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic level.

In August, the Harris County Commissioners Court answered Public Citizen’s demands by passing a “Harris Thrives” resolution to solve flooding issues. The resolution requires that money from the $2.5 billion flood bond package approved in 2018 be spent based on a “worst first” formula.

That means that areas of Harris County hardest hit, and where some of most vulnerable residents reside, would be protected first. The strategy marks a departure from the old approach, which focused on cost-benefit analysis. According to the Houston Chronicle, work is underway on more than 150 projects, though most are still in the design phase.

Curbing Climate Change-Inducing Emissions

Ambitious emissions reductions are necessary to ensure a livable climate. In Houston, Public Citizen has pushed for the development of a climate action plan to meet emissions reduction goals. Houston released its draft plan in July. It isn’t perfect. That’s why Public Citizen’s Texas office is urging social media and other channels to urge Texans to demand more ambitious near-term emissions reductions that meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Chemical Disasters

As if climate change and natural disasters don’t present enough challenges, the Houston area also is home to one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world. Chemical disasters happen all too frequently in the area – on average, once every six weeks.

In September, rainfall from Imelda and lightning strikes unleashed several hundred thousand pounds of pollution from Houston’s petrochemical corridor.

Last spring, a massive fire at the ITC petrochemical plant erupted and cast a dark plume of toxic smoke across the region, releasing more than 15 million pounds of pollution and forcing schoolchildren to shelter in place. hese pollutants not only entered the air but also the waterways. Pollutants kill wildlife and endanger the health of first responders and community members.

During the 2019 Texas Legislature, Public Citizen lobbied for – and secured – a $1.5 million appropriation for air quality monitoring equipment. The state announced on Oct. 21 that it was purchasing the equipment, which will be installed in mobile vans that can be deployed by Texas environmental regulators during natural disasters. It also can be used for regular monitoring of petrochemical company fence lines, to help keep vulnerable communities safe.

Public Citizen’s Texas office also participated last summer in a Harris County study to identify gaps in the county’s chemical disaster response. Public Citizen’s efforts helped support the allocation of $11.1 million for additional staff and air monitoring. The county has agreed to pay for 61 new employees to begin to address emergency response efforts in an area of chemical plant expansion.

“Public Citizen has been able to help shape public policy and opinion in Houston and Harris County to help protect residents,” said Stephanie Thomas, an organizer and researcher in Public Citizen’s Texas office. “

In the months ahead, Public Citizen’s Texas office will continue to press for the strongest public health and environmental protections for Houston and its surrounding communities.