EPA Watchdog Finds Fault with Agency’s Response to Hurricane Harvey Air Pollution

Statement of Elena Craft, EDF Senior Director for Climate and Health

December 16, 2019
Matt Tresaugue, (713) 392-7888, mtresaugue@edf.org

(HOUSTON – Dec. 16, 2019) The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of the Inspector General on Monday released a report faulting the agency for its inadequate response to the extra air pollution in the heavily industrial Houston area in the days after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

The Inspector General found that the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) failed to initiate air quality monitoring efforts in time to assess the health risks of the additional pollutants, which included cancer-causing chemicals like benzene. The agencies also did not consider the cumulative impact of people’s exposure to multiple pollutants at one time, especially in the communities closest to industrial facilities.

“Hurricane Harvey put into sharp focus the failures of EPA and Texas in responding to environmental disasters,” said Elena Craft, Senior Director for Climate and Health at Environmental Defense Fund. “Both are ill-equipped and ill-prepared to assess and communicate threats to people’s health during emergencies. They must develop a rigorous plan for active air quality monitoring, sharing as much information as they can about environmental sampling in real time. The public has a right to know about pollution hazards, especially in times of crisis.”

The report focused on the management failures as oil refineries and petrochemical plants released at least 340 tons of additional toxic air pollution in greater Houston because of shutdowns, restarts and malfunctions.
The Inspector General also highlighted the agencies’ lack of transparency with air monitoring data. Communities were unaware of the agencies’ activities and results, and this “can diminish public trust and confidence,” the report concluded.

TCEQ declined to participate in the investigation. The Inspector General said it never received a response from the state agency “despite several conversations to arrange for written answers” to its questions.

“Texans deserve a state environmental agency that does everything in its power to protect their health and safety,” Craft said. “Unfortunately, TCEQ consistently fails to inform vulnerable communities about the threats they may face from nearby industrial facilities. The agency’s leadership seems numb to the consequences of its inaction.”

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