08/31/17 3:45pm

Captured on Sunday between bands of Harvey downpour by an enterprising drone photographer hunkering in Friendswood, the video above includes a quick pan over the Brio Superfund site south of Beamer Rd. near the intersection with Dixie Farm Rd. The former chemical facility, once at the heart of both the long-gone Southbend neighborhood and of the series of lawsuits filed by Southbend residents over contamination-related birth defects and illnesses, makes its cameo around minute 3, as the drone passes over a waterlogged Exxon Mobil station and rotates from south to east down Beamer toward the San Jacinto College South Campus.

Might floodwaters flowing across the Brio site and all those other Superfund spots dotting the local map have stirred up toxin-laced sediments and spread them around? (Texas A&M Galveston scientist Wes Highfield was worried enough about the possibility to attempt a mid-flood outing from his home to try to get some water samples.) In the video, the Brio site appears to be a little less waterlogged than some of its surroundings — including the adjacent section of Beamer Rd., shown picking up a bit of kayak traffic — but likely got washed over by around 42 in. of rain altogether in the past week.

In a follow-up drone run flown on Wednesday, the site (making an appearance about 2-and-a-half minutes in) looks like it might have dried off a bit:

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Superfund and Beyond
08/30/17 5:15pm

SMELLING BLIND IN THE EAST END A possible cause of the nasty smells that caused East End residents headaches, sore and scratchy throats, and itchy eyes as Hurricane Harvey approached and inundated the area? Houston-area industrial plants in the last week released more than 2.25 million pounds of emissions above legal limits, according to an Environment Texas tally of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality data. The reason: plant shutdowns before the onset of the storm and startups after it left. “So far,” writes Emily Atkin, “TCEQ has not indicated these events have triggered health impacts. . . . TCEQ Media Relations Manager Andrea Miller told me the agency or local emergency officials would contact residents if an immediate health threat were to occur. What’s more, Miller said companies were probably reporting higher emissions that what actually occurred, ‘since underreporting can result in higher penalties.It’s unclear, however, how TCEQ would check many of the companies’ reports, since the agency turned off all its air quality monitors in the Houston area before Harvey hit. Miller confirmed as much on Monday, saying devices were either turned off or removed “to protect against damage or loss of these sensitive and expensive instruments.” [The New Republic] Photo of ExxonMobil Baytown refinery: Louis Vest [license]  

08/01/17 3:00pm

COMMENT OF THE DAY: MIGHT UPSET HOUSTON’S DELICATE WATERWAY ECOSYSTEM “. . . I suppose all those cars need to come out of the bayou, but I fear that will really mess up the fishing.” [Txcon, commenting on Comment of the Day: Aside from These 2 Issues, Fishing in Brays Bayou Is Enormously Appealing]    

06/26/17 10:45am

A stolen Dodge Durango was the first car pulled out of Brays Bayou earlier this month as Harris County Flood Control and friends resumed work on removing some of the 100-plus sunken vehicles previously discovered gently rusting below the surface of a few of Houston’s major waterways. (The Nissan Maxima above was next in line.) Last year’s test run of the removal setup snagged a total of 20 cars out of Brays and Sims bayous; the contracts signed earlier this year for a new round of vehicle fishing budget for a catch of around 65 vehicles from the 2 bayous, depending on size and how much of a fight each one puts up. (Texas Equusearch did note back in its 2011 survey that at least one big rig is lurking somewhere in the watery depths, and some of the cars are more filled with mud and debris than others.)

The county says the new car count was up to 13 by the time work crews paused last week to let Cindy pass; a county worker also snapped photos showing off some of the haul, which has so far included a range of more and less easily identifiable makes and models including a Nissan Frontier, a Jaguar, a Ford Mustang, a Ford Bronco, an Eagle Talon, and others:

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2,000-Pounders
05/17/17 2:00pm

COMING OFF THE STATE WATCHLIST DOESN’T MEAN HOUSTON’S POLLUTION HOTSPOTS DON’T STILL NEED TO BE WATCHED Of the 14 sites pulled off the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality’s special pollution watchlist since 2007, Elena Craft writes in the Chronicle’s Gray Matters column today, some 8 of them have since had new noteworthy upticks of various chemicals linked to health issues like breathing problems, nerve problems, or cancer, according to the Environmental Defense Fund’s recent study. Craft dives into some of the sticky aspects of trying to keep track of whether chemical levels are above normal for visitors and residents near spots like Milby Park (above) and the Lynchburg Ferry area, including the fact that the data collected by on-site monitors isn’t always available to the public right away, and that short-term high levels of problem chemicals don’t usually get investigated. “The absence of information about these seemingly random pollution spikes is troubling,” Craft writes, “because it suggests that TCEQ has stopped paying attention before its work is truly complete.” [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Photo of Milby Park: Ric F.

03/07/17 4:30pm

HARRIS COUNTY GETTING IN ON THE PASADENA REFINERY AIR POLLUTION LAWSUIT ACTION Pasadena Refinery System plant at 111 Red Bluff Rd., Pasadena, TX 77506In the wake of the lawsuit the Sierra Club and Environment Texas filed last week alleging that the century-old Pasadena Refining System plant has violated the federal Clean Air Act some thousands of times, Harris County attorney Vince Ryan has filed another suit against the plant.  This one’s to do with the facility allegedly breaking state level environmental laws, Diana Wray writes in this week’s Houston Press; incidents of particular note include last summer’s major sulfur dioxide leak, which briefly shut down both the nearby Washburn Tunnel and the rest of the Ship Channel (while sending Galena Park into duck-and-cover mode). Wray writes that both lawsuits seem mostly geared toward getting the plant to clean up its act; each suit also has the potential to require that some kind of compliance watchdog or overseer be assigned to plant to ensure that it’s doing so. [Houston Press; previously on SwamplotPhoto of Pasadena Refinery Systems, Inc. plant at 111 Red Bluff Rd.: Center for Land Use Interpretation (license)

02/13/17 2:30pm

UNIDENTIFIED CHEMICAL STENCH, HAZE DRIFTING ACROSS TOWN OFFICIALLY NO CAUSE FOR CONCERN Albemarle Corporation Facility, 13000 Bay Park Rd., Pasadena, TX, 77507Suggested and mandatory restrictions on hanging around outside were issued by the Memorial Village area’s fire department and by Katy ISD respectively for a while this morning, in response to the acrid odor and haze blowing in some 40 miles across the city from somewhere near the Ship Channel. The Houston emergency response folks say that their monitoring has turned up no air quality red flags, but that anyone who can avoid the stink should probably do so just in case. The particular origin and composition of the odor also still seems to still be up for debate this afternoon: The Albemarle facility at 13000 Bay Park Rd. (shown above) called into the CAER hotline this morning to report that they might be releasing natural gas odorizer throughout the day as their gas facilities got worked on, and LyondellBasell’s Sheldon Rd. facility also sent a message to the CAER line that they would be conducting flaring today in response to a “unit upset,” but no official suspects have been named by the city.  The extent of the odor’s inland spread is notably broader than last month’s quickie Valero tank overfill stench incident in Manchester: KHOU reports that some of its viewers on the southeast side of town started calling in about the smell around 10 am, and that “by 11 a.m. the smell and an apparent haze covered most of downtown Houston and the west side, with some reports from as far north as Bush Airport.” [KHOU; previously on Swamplot] Photo of Albemarle facility at 13000 Bay Park Rd.: April R.  

01/06/17 1:45pm

Urban wildlife cellphone videographer Christine Wilson sends some footage captured from Allen’s Landing documenting the eons-old nature vs. civilization struggle, which played out earlier this week in the form of tiny ducks dodging their way through the floating trash field where White Oak and Buffalo bayous join up. Wilson caught sight (and sound) of a duck and 4 ducklings struggling across the White Oak outflow toward the Buffalo side of the confluence, which she notes is significantly less debris-spangled. That’s the Harris County Jail in the background for most of the shot, across White Oak from the main building of the University of Houston Downtown. (The footage cuts out mid-scene, but Wilson says the ducks did eventually make it across.)

Video: Christine Wilson

Buffalo Vs. White Oak
12/22/16 12:00pm

Texas RRC orphaned wells, by Luke Whyte for the Texas Tribune

Texas RRC orphaned wells, by Luke Whyte for the Texas TribuneThe map above (a snap from Luke Whyte’s click-and-zoom-able original version, published this week by the Texas Tribune) shows the abandoned oil and gas wells scattered in and around the Houston area, per the official accounting of the Texas Railroad Commission. The state agency (which has had nothing to do with railroads since 2005) regulates pipelines, oil, and gas, and keeps tabs on so-called “orphaned wells” whose original owners have stopped keeping tabs on them for one reason or another, writes Jim Malewitz this week — the ones that were reported in the first place, that is. Kerry Knorpp, formerly on a defunct state committee overseeing oilfield cleanup efforts, also tells Malewitz that “there is about to be a tsunami of [newly] abandoned wells — wells were drilled at $110 oil that you would have never completed otherwise.”

The shaded hexagons above are meant to help show the density of those holes, not the degree to which they might pose a pollution hazard (though the agency ranks each well by its hazard potential, too, to help it decide which ones to plug up first, of the more than 10,000 currently on the docket).

Just what kind of hazards can a bunch of abandoned holes pose, anyway?

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Boom and Bust
11/29/16 11:00am

San Jacinto River at I-10 Crossing, Channelview, TX 77530

Weather permitting, an area along the edge of the San Jacinto Waste Pits Superfund site under the I-10 East bridge should be getting around 800 cubic feet of new rocks piled onto it this week and next, according to this month’s EPA update on the project. The agency asked International Paper and McGinnis (which might be on the hook financially for much of the final cleanup) to cover up some recently-discovered areas of the nearby riverbed that were scoured as deep as 8 feet in some places by this spring‘s torrential flooding; the tarp-with-rocks-on-it armored cap itself doesn’t appear to have been damaged, but the EPA says the extra rocks will help ensure its continued protectiveness.

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Armor Under I-10
11/16/16 11:00am

CITY TRACKING DOWN THE LEAD IN CITY HALL’S DRINKING FOUNTAINS, EYEING OTHER DOWNTOWN FAUCETS city-hall-bigThe city is planning to check in on the water at other buildings downtown, Scott Noll reports, in the wake of those lead tests KHOU did on drinking water from just City Hall and the City Hall Annex buildings last week. Those tests turned up lead levels so high above federal limits in at least 1 fountain that the city has shut them all off (and cleaned out the ice machines) while more extensive testing is done on the system. City spokesperson Janice Evans says city testing a few years ago didn’t show concern-worthy lead levels, but the fountains will stay off while the source of the current problem is traced out: “Is it the pipes? Is it the drinking fountains? Is it water coming into the building? It could be [any of the 3] options. There’s a lot of deferred maintenance in this building.”  [KHOU; previously on Swamplot] Photo of City Hall: City of Houston

11/07/16 11:00am

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE PASADENA REFINERY THAT RELEASED 3 MORE TONS OF AIR POLLUTION ON THURSDAY? Pasadena Refinery System plant at 111 Red Bluff Rd., Pasadena, TX 77506“We worry about this plant more than we worry about the others,” Air Alliance Houston director Adrian Shelley tells Dylan Baddour after last week’s release of a 6,000-pound cocktail of toxic air contaminants from the Pasadena Refinery System complex, south of Buffalo Bayou just east of the Washburn Tunnel. The release occurred in the wake of a 7-hour power outage at the Petrobras-owned refinery (which played a role in the massive Brazilian corruption scandal that came to light last year); Baddour says this is the 8th contaminant release the company has reported so far this year (and the 65th since 2005). Shelley notes that the plant has a reputation for “large particulate matter (soot) release events that you really don’t see at other Houston refineries,” including the 2 tons of soot released on Thursday with sulfur dioxide gas and other contaminants; Shelley also notes that one of the plant’s key federal permits expired last year, resulting in a $7000 fine from the TCEQ. [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Photo of Pasadena Refinery Systems, Inc. plant at 111 Red Bluff Rd.: Center for Land Use Interpretation (license)

10/31/16 12:00pm

Houston Map of risk management plan facilities from UCS/tejas

The little and not-so-little red dots on the map above show off sites on the EPA’s list of plants and refineries required to have a Risk Management Plan due to their potential for accidental hazardous chemical releases — with the larger dots showing the places that have already had an accident (or, in some cases, as many as 43). Clicking each dot will tell you what the facility’s name is, as well as how much toxic or flammable material it stores on site (to the nearest thousand pounds or so).

The Union of Concerned Scientists and t.e.j.a.s. put together the interactive map as part of a report released late last week, which compares the EPA’s data on air quality and cancer rates in a few neighborhoods on the west side of town (specifically in Bellaire and in the West Oaks and Eldridge area, just inside Hwy.6 near the Barker reservoir) with the same data in a couple of east side spots (Galena Park and Manchester).

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Sniffing It Out
10/07/16 10:30am

WAIT, DID THE 2008 RECESSION UP THE CHANCES OF A FUTURE HOUSTON CHEMICAL CATASTROPHE? Predicted Before and After Flood Map, 500 Year Flood EventRoy Scranton imagines “a wave of water sweeping toxic waste into playgrounds, shops and houses” in Magnolia Park in his op-ed this morning, written after touring the Ship Channel and speaking with the local A&M and Rice research teams pushing for variations on a series of region-scale coastal barriers to hunker down behind whenever the next gigantic hurricane hits the Houston region, in hopes of avoiding deadly flooding and catastrophic chemical spills. But the researchers tell Scranton that pushing for federal and state funding for a response is a slow endeavor; Jim Blackburn (a main player on the Rice team) tells Scranton that he’s “heard more than one person say our plan is to wait until the next hurricane comes, then depend on guilt money from Washington to fix the problem.” Scranton writes that the best chance for that guilt money so far might have been in 2008, when Hurricane Ike landed just 30 miles northeast of the zone that modelers say could have caused thousands of deaths and irreparable ecological devastation to the area, on September 13th — 2 days before the Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, pulling global attention and national funds to other issues as markets began to crash. [NY Times; previously on Swamplot] Model maps of potential storm surge flooding along the ship channel, with chemical storage marked in red: Texas Tribune

09/30/16 11:45am

YOU MIGHT WANT TO TAKE THAT DIOXIN OUT OF THE SAN JACINTO BEFORE A HURRICANE DOES IT FIRST EPA San Jacinto Waste Pits dioxin over background mapYesterday marked the start of the 60-day public comment period on this week’s proposal to pull about 202,000 cubic yards of dioxin-laced muck out of the San Jacinto River near I-10. The Houston Chronicle editorial board was among the first to jump in (though not through official comment channels), highlighting the EPA’s conclusion that the waste, which has already been seasoning the seafood and (potentially) the river’s swimmers and nearby residents since the 1960s, could cause much larger problems if the wrong storm or hurricane hits the site; the board also calls out International Paper and Waste-Management-affiliated McGinnis Industrial Maintenance — companies potentially on the hook for the cleanup bill — for purportedly slowing down the cleanup process. [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Map of higher-than-background dioxin levels near San Jacinto Waste Pits site at I-10: EPA