Houston Flood Victims Plagued By Chemical and Gas-Like Odors

Residents of Houston, Texas are reporting a peculiar, chemical-like smell in areas where people are trapped as a result of heavy flooding from the devastating tropical storm that hit last Friday.

As epic flooding and torrential rainfall continue to devastate the nation’s fourth largest city, a large number of residents on the border of industrial areas are complaining about an odor that seems to be originating from nearby oil refineries and chemical plants. There are also reports of an apparent haze covering downtown Houston reaching as far as Bush Airport. As a result, some residents are experiencing ailments such as headaches, itchy eyes, and scratchy throats, raising concerns about air pollution from damage caused by storm.

“I’ve been smelling them all night and off and on this morning,” said Bryan Parras, an environmental activist with the group TEJAS. Parras lives in Houston’s East End where flood waters have risen over 4 feet in some spots and the smell seems to be particularly strong. “Fenceline communities can’t leave or evacuate so they are literally getting gassed by these chemicals,” said Parras.

Although Parras and others are convinced the odor is being emitted by nearby refineries and chemical plants, the source of the smell is unclear. According to the CAER phone line, which alerts the public to refinery and plant operations, flare-offs were reported at the Lyondell Basell facility in Channelview. The plant claimed that there was “no risk to the community.”

Multiple plants have already began shutting down or are in the process of doing so due to the historic flooding. According to a 2012 report by the Environmental Integrity Project, shutdowns are the key cause of “abnormal” emission cases. Sudden shutdowns can release sulfur dioxide vapors or toxic chemicals in only a few hours. Downwind communities closest to these sites, mostly comprised of low-income and minority families, receive peak levels of pollution that cause asthma attacks and other respiratory complications.

Steven E. Johnson is a Mississippi-based author who covers social injustice and political issues. You can contact him at stevejlive at gmail dot com