Environmental fallout from 2017 hurricanes still ongoing
Wednesday, April 11, 2018
Among much disagreement about almost everything, there is one thing everyone is likely to agree on: it has been a challenging seven months. Complex geopolitical developments and ongoing social issues, like mass shootings and gun control, remain difficult to ignore as we go about our daily lives.
Natural disasters have been the most show-stopping events in recent months. Horrifying images of hurricanes and wildfires sweeping through beloved cities, towns, islands, neighborhoods, businesses and homes will remain with us for years to come.
It appears that the hurricane dust is still not settled, as problems remain and even mount for residents of impacted areas. In fact, this recent hurricane season saw Harvey, Irma and Maria delivering astonishing, record-breaking environmental damage.
When Harvey swept through Texas, it brought catastrophic levels of rainfall. Small coastal Texas towns, like Port Aransas, Aransas Pass and Rockport, were severely flooded. But the majority of the focus has been on Houston's metropolitan area, where extreme flooding caused $125 billion in damages, crippling the local economy.
Seven months later, speculation that Harvey also caused new forms of toxic environmental contamination is proving true. This pollution is now just beginning to be reported with new details.
Houston's status as a petrochemical industry giant has been under harsh scrutiny since Harvey. There was early evidence that "thousands of tons" of pollutants — ranging from toxic fumes to water contamination — were leaking into nearby neighborhoods and the city's greater atmosphere.
Three known chemicals — benzene, vinyl chloride and butadiene — leaked into surging stormwater during Harvey. One chemical plant east of Houston released "nearly half a billion gallons of industrial wastewater" alone.
Considering that this is only one of about 100 known chemical releases, we are only beginning to wrap our brains around Harvey's massive public health impact. Apparently, 89 spill incidents have been investigated with little follow-through, leaving the public in the dark.
Houston is the country's largest energy corridor. It is home to 10 refineries, 500 chemical plants and "more than 6,670 miles of intertwined oil, gas and chemical pipelines." The biggest environmental recovery challenge lies in holding the industry accountable to its role in the massive surge of new environmental contaminants.
As if Harvey wasn’t enough, Hurricane Irma arrived Sept. 10, impacting a large area that includes Florida. One example of its impact is a "brown curtain of death" now reported in Brevard County's Indian Harbor Beach, a city where water once teemed with dancing sea birds, biting fish and swimming dolphins.
Indian Harbor Beach was already dealing with a brown algae problem caused by development that overtasked the sewage and septic tank systems. When Irma hit, this problem was compacted, overwhelming wastewater treatment plants across the state. In Brevard County, 30 million gallons of sewage brought along nitrogen and phosphorus-rich nutrients that help brown algae grow.
Now, it is not uncommon to see human feces float by in Florida waters surrounded by million-dollar homes. Residents are furious that public officials overlooked an aging sewage infrastructure, and now people are scrambling to make up for lost time.
Two years ago, the area underwent a massive killing of fish and sea grass brought on by algae. Add in all of the discharged water after Irma hit, and it should be no surprise that another massive fish kill is expected.
The good news: Money for a huge clean-up and prevention plans that prioritize sewage infrastructure is funded by a half-cent sales tax. In the meantime, many residents remain gloomy about Irma's brown water legacy, and they are organizing effective recovery efforts to cope with this overwhelming loss.
Last but definitely not least, there was the Category 4 hurricane, Maria, that devastated Caribbean islands. Maria's impact made Puerto Rico a political battleground, as recovery funds became an issue in Washington, D.C.
When Maria's six-month anniversary arrived in early March, Gov. Ricardo Rossello told ABC News that "some towns in the middle of Puerto Rico and in the southeast part of Puerto Rico ... are hovering over around 20 to 30 percent [with electricity]."
This amounts to about 100,000 customers remaining without power today, rendering the island's blackout the longest in American history.
It is speculated that 100 percent power will not be attainable until at least June, possibly even longer. The governor acknowledges the new grid is weaker than the previous one, and that a return to pre-Maria electricity levels will take five years. For now, a deeply compromised energy grid is Puerto Rico's new normal.
There are many "new normals" that whole populations have adjusted to in the past seven months. Pollutants and environmental problems — from spilled petrochemicals, brown algae and a failed energy grid — are haunting reminders of a seemingly bygone hurricane season.
People's persistence to not just repair, but also improve, their surrounding environments is the light at the end of this hurricane tunnel. Public and ecological health remain intrinsically related, as recovery continues and the public seeks viable information and solutions for a growing body of environmental challenges.
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