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]
ELYSIAN VIADUCT WORK UNEARTHS HISTORIC HOUSTON HERITAGE TRASH PILE The real value of the long-buried dump uncovered by the ongoing replacement of the Elysian St. bridge over I-10 and Buffalo Bayou, write Doug Boyd and Jason Barrett this week in the Chronicle, is in the opportunity it provides “to document the often-unwritten parts of our industrial heritage.” The dump, apparently built up over the early half of the 1900s in a former gully, serves as a springboard for the authors to talk trash — Houston, they write, was one of the first cities to adopt widespread municipal garbage incineration, and lagged decades behind as most cities chose to stop doing it out of concern for public health. Spots like the one under Elysian St., they add, help fill in the gaps of knowledge of what happened to all the other trash that didn’t end up in a city incinerator or landfill — and who tended to live nearby. [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Photos: Adam J Williams
The fire that started late yesterday afternoon at the Holmes Road Recycling Center (just west of 288 south of 610) is still on the Houston Fire Department’s list of active incidents at the moment, after about 19 hours. KHOU reports that the firefighting has been complicated by the need to cool off the heat-retaining piles of burning scrap metal on the scene, as well as a lack of water supply in the industrial patchwork around Pierce Junction. Hazmat crews reportedly say there’s no out-of-the-ordinary chemical concerns related to the smoke this time, though HFD captain Ruy Lozana did note to KHOU last night that the smoke’s strong smell and darker color is probably from leftover fluids in crushed cars catching fire.
Wind coming primarily from the south and southeast pushed smoke and haze from the fire across 610 all the way to the Texas Medical Center, some 3 miles north. Nearby Rice University sent out an alert around 4:45 warning folks with respiratory issues to stay indoors for a bit — below is a view (from several hours after that warning) of the haze from the Rice campus parking lot on Greenbriar, east of the stadium:
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Blowing In the Wind
The field above, on the block between W. 24th, W. 25th, Ashland and Rutland streets in the Heights, will be the subject of a public meeting next month, a reader who got a letter about it from the city notes to Swamplot. The land (an also-ran in the Best Teardown category for the 2010 Swampies) was previously the site of some of National Flame & Forge’s operations, which extended into the double block immediately to the north (now sprouting the townhomes visible in the distance). The owners have spent some time in the last few years taking stock of some industrial leftovers on the property, and are now seeking a Municipal Settings Designation for the land, which will legally nix any future use of the site’s chromium-and-trichloroethylene-spiked groundwater for drinking purposes.
The letter, addressed to nearby property owners and water-well-havers, emphasizes that no city water sources are affected by the contamination, and adds that the city is also legally required to send the meeting invite to anyone who owns a water well within 5 miles of the site. The map below is included with the application from NFF Realty for the no-drinking label; the aerial shows the rough boundaries of areas where water sampling over 2014 and 2015 showed more-than-you-want-in-your-coffee levels of chromium (in red) and trichloroethylene (in yellow):
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Yesterday’s entry in Houston’s recurring game of what’s-that-mysterious-black-cloud was brought to you by LyondellBasell’s Pasadena refinery at 12000 Lawndale St. (the same one that caught fire back in early April). The shot above was taken from an overpass near the junction of Loop 610 with Hwy. 225, though for parts of the afternoon the trail was visible from at least 7 miles away at the Hilton Americas building downtown. A LyondellBasell spokesperson tells Swamplot that flaring was triggered just before noon after a Calpine facility sending steam to the refinery lost power, reportedly due to a lightning strike. The company sent a message to the East Harris County Manufacturer’s Association’s emergency response info hotline stating that observers “may notice a bright orange flame, black smoke or a rumbling noise,” but that it was no big deal, and no one in nextdoor Manchester or Deer Park needed to do anything like leave or tape their windows shut this time.
Photo: Michael Muguerza via t.e.j.a.s.
Pasadena Smoke Signals
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW ASTRODOME DÉJÀ-VU COULD FUEL THE NEXT HOUSTON BOOM AND BUST “We shouldn’t have a [tourism] industry because it’s cyclical? Hello — oil industry? That’s the epitome of a cyclical industry. But I do agree with Memebag: Our climate absolutely sucks for an outdoor tourism industry, not to mention being the only city I’ve ever seen that had all the pollution of a deepwater port with none of the scenery. If only we had a gigantic, air conditioned space that could hold an amusement park . . .” [Chris C., commenting on Comment of the Day: Houston Is Not Here For Your Entertainment] Photo of 2007 carnival inside the Astrodome: Jeff Balke
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOME IS WHERE THE CHEMICAL WASTE IS “I lived there from 1984-1990, from 2nd to 7th grade. I remember there being a ton of empty houses by the end. They never finished the neighborhood either, given that the problems occurred and people knew about it by the end. You’d have entire streets with 4 or 5 houses on it. My friends and I would play baseball, or football in those empty lots. We’d hit baseballs through windows of abandoned homes, and it’d be a dare to ‘go into that ghost house’ to get the ball back.
I remember going back in 1993 or so, and the entire place was empty, boarded up. It was sad. My dad and I hopped the fence and walked back to where our house was. We were there for about 5 minutes when the police came and wanted to know what the hell we were doing. Apparently, it’d become a place for squatters.
By 1995 the entire neighborhood was bulldozed to the ground. Now just an empty field. Yes, my dad lost a ton on that house. But we were part of that settlement that is mentioned. Paid for a small portion of my college, will pay for a tiny portion of my kids’ college. We were lucky in that I didn’t have any defects (that I know of), and my sister seems alright as well, though she had severe migraines at the time. It was a weird situation, especially for a 7-12 year old. But, I didn’t know it was ‘odd’ at the time. I just thought that it was cool, that I could break a window, or climb into a back yard to get a ball back, at a house that sat empty for 4 years. I thought it was ‘normal.’” [Matt, commenting on My Toxic Houston Childhood] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: FOLLOW THE SMOG “You do not escape smog in Houston by moving to the burbs. In the summer, Houston has a circular wind pattern that takes ship channel pollutants for a ride out to the suburbs. Go to the Houston Clean Air Network website and set the animation for Aug. 6, 2012. You will see a big area of ozone form over the ship channel that gets blown out to Pearland, then Sugar Land and spends the late afternoon in Cinco Ranch and just east of Katy before starting to drift back east. The worst of the smog slides south of the City and never really gets north of I-10 inside the loop. Ship channel industries account for about 2/3rds of the smog. The rest is motor vehicle emissions. Ship channel industries have made significant progress in reducing and controlling emissions. But more sprawl and more traffic threaten to offset the progress made on the ship channel. Thus, the smog issue is a very real consequence of sprawl that is not escaped by sprawl either.” [Old School, commenting on Holding Back on That Downtown Hotel Push; The Beer Garden, Greenhouse, and Food Court Growing in Prohibition’s Basement] Image: Houston Clean Air Network
Inspired by reading René Steinke’s new and recently optioned-for-film novel Friendswood, the plot of which centers on the aftermath of the Brio Superfund mess just south of I-45 and the Beltway, Cite magazine’s Allyn West returns to the former chemical waste facility at Dixie Farm Rd. and Beamer Rd. to snap some photos and have a look around: “The first thing you pass is a landfill. And then, incongruously, you pass archetypal subdivisions with bucolic names, much like Southbend must have been. There’s a dedicated bike lane on both sides of Dixie Farm, clearly marked and freshly painted. Then turning toward the site onto Blackhawk Boulevard, you pass Ashley Pointe, a new subdivision. That morning, I saw construction workers milling about around unfinished stick frames. If Southbend still existed, Ashley Pointe would sit right next to it.”
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COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE LIMITS OF EASTWARD DEVELOPMENT “With every mile moving east, you are getting nearer to Houston’s gigantic petrochemical industrial complex, along with its unpredictable environmental and public health issues, which begin just about a mile east of Eastwood (for example, look at the location of identified Superfund Sites in Harris County, . . . which gives a clear picture). This is the main reason why people in Houston, and those who can afford it, stay as much west as possible. . . . ” [Larry, commenting on Comment of the Day: What’s the Scoop on Eastwood?] Illustration: Lulu
W. A. PARISH PLANT ONE OF THE WORST POLLUTERS IN THE COUNTRY, FINDS REPORT According to a new study published by Environment America, NRG Energy’s coal-firing W. A. Parish Electric Generating Plant, on Smithers Lake outside of Richmond, is really good at being dirty. Though the plant has been messing around with a way to clean itself up in the past year or so, the report, published today, still fingers it as the 5th dirtiest in the country when it comes to carbon emissions. And here, in order, are 1-4: “Georgia Power Co.’s Plant Scherer, Alabama Power Co.’s James H. Miller Jr. Plant, Luminant’s Martin Lake in Texas, [and] Ameren’s Labadie in Missouri.” [StateImpact; Environment America; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Flickr user Joe A.
SMELT ON THE BANKS OF THE HOUSTON SHIP CHANNEL Included in USA Today‘s national list of “ghost factories” — forgotten lead smelting sites that have left behind toxic particles in the nearby soil — is the Lead Products Co. site at 709 N. Velasco St., just south of the Ship Channel a mile and a half east of Downtown. The TCEQ tells the newspaper that the site was a secondary lead smelter until 1968: “Contamination at the site is being addressed under a voluntary cleanup program and has focused on the disposal of lead battery casings at the site and on the adjoining KQXT transmitter property, the state said. Cleanup actions have included construction and placement of an earthen cap. Groundwater contamination also has been investigated, the state said.” Helpfully, Lead Products Co. has a “ghost” website to go along with its “ghost” factory. [USA Today] Photo of adjacent Cary St. play area: Lead Products Co.
COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHY HOUSTON NEEDS THAT NEW WALMART BY THE BAYOU “With all this rain, surely pollutants are leeching out from the soils of this brownfield site and flowing into White Oak Bayou. If there were a Wal-Mart here, the surface would be impermeable with only trace amounts of leaked motor oil contaminating the bayou. And as a kayaker that enjoys high water, that means less cancer for me!” [TheNiche, commenting on Only a Little Off Target: Walmart Heading Right Between Washington Ave and the Heights]
COMMENT OF THE DAY: WE’RE FROM THE TEXAS MEDICAL CENTER AND WE’RE HERE TO HELP “Given all the refineries, industrial plants, chemical plants, railroads, stagnant swamps and cesspools, traffic pollution, and the like that plague this hellhole of a town, it is a freaking wonder that Houston doesn’t lead the nation in cancer cases.” [Random Poster, commenting on Today’s Odor in Baytown Is Brought to You by ExxonMobil]
COMMENT OF THE DAY: AND ON ANY RAINY SUNDAY “Well, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are coming up, an opportunity for the Annual Unscientific Anecdotal Take A Whiff Holiday Bingo. First thing in the morning on these two holidays, open your windows or step onto your porch or balcony, face the southeast, and take a big sniff of the air. 99% guarantee you’ll get a strong odor of Eau de Ship Channel. After 20 or so years of this I’m convinced that the plants take advantage of the holiday (no one manning the phones at TCEQ) to flush the toilets, as it were, and let the emissions fly.” [Miz Brooke Smith, commenting on How the TCEQ Helps Houston Air Stay So Fresh and Clean]