(Adds background, comments from academic, regulator)
By Richard Valdmanis and Timothy Gardner
HOUSTON/WASHINGTON, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Floating colonies of red fire ants and power lines in floodwaters plagued people fleeing Harvey this week. As they return to their communities, the next scourge could be water filled with bacteria and pollutants.
Water accumulated on streets, highways and inside homes may contain agents of disease from sewers that have overflowed, the Environmental Protection Agency warned in a statement with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Thursday.
It also contains runoff and spills from petrochemical facilities around Houston and other coastal cities, said Nancy Loeb, a law professor and director of the environmental advocacy clinic at Northwestern University.
Along with potential leaks from heavily polluted sites in the region, the contamination could hamper recovery. “After being displaced by an unbelievable storm, people returning to their homes are now facing a whole new set of risks - exposure to dangerous pollutants,” Loeb said. “There was a bit of risk of dermal exposure when the waters rose, but it may be even more dangerous when the water subsides and people start pulling sheetrock and fixing their houses.” She said homes and yards could be contaminated with arsenic and lead. “Those sediments may have been carried in without people realizing.”
The Environmental Protection Agency said the biggest threat to public health now was ensuring that people have access to safe drinking water and that waste water systems were being monitored. It said precautions included following directives to boil water.
Pollution is a concern during major floods.
When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, it caused problems at refining facilities that led to large spills. But assessments by the EPA then showed that Superfund sites mainly held up well to that storm, which brought less rain than Harvey.
Superfund sites are land that has been determined by the EPA to be contaminated with hazardous waste in need of cleanup because they pose a risk to human health or the environment.
Houston city officials have been negotiating for years with the EPA and the Justice Department over an order that would force it to spend billions of dollars on repairs to its sewer system.
Spokespeople from the EPA and the city of Houston said last week they had still not reached an agreement.
The EPA has sent people and planes to assess pollution in areas hit by Harvey as concerns mount over leaks and spills from the Texas oil industry and Superfund sites.
Flooding from Harvey has already triggered a handful of spills and releases from petrochemical facilities in Texas, according to reports filed by companies with the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality.
That includes more than 12,000 pounds of volatile organic compounds from Exxon Mobil’s massive Baytown refinery when rainwater sank a storage tank’s floating roof.
“The tank has been stabilized and there are no containment issues,” said Exxon official Charlotte Huffaker.
Concerns are also mounting about the Superfund sites, including the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site outside Houston, a deposit of sediments laced with dioxins that is submerged in the heavily flooded San Jacinto River.
Andrew Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said regulators had taken steps to secure state sites in the projected path of Hurricane Harvey and would be inspecting sites alongside the EPA “once re-entry is possible”.
The EPA said about 200 federal and state workers were working “elbow to elbow” starting in Corpus Christi, Texas, and moving east to protect the health and safety of residents. (Reporting by Richad Valdmanis in Houston, Emily Flitter in Orange, Texas, and Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken, Toni Reinhold)