Environmentalists are comparing Hurricane Harvey with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill from 2010.
They worry that with the governor suspending some environmental rules, the Category 4 hurricane’s effects won’t be fully understood until long after the spotlight is pointed elsewhere.
“With the BP oil spill, we’re still learning things like how dolphins and other marine life fared,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas.
It’s hard to quantify, “but I would definitely wager it’s probably the biggest environmental disaster Texas has ever seen,” he said.
What environmentalists do know now is what they’re seeing on the ground.
Large chunks of coastline, chipped away at for years by passing barges, disappeared overnight with the storm surge.
In their haste to shut down and then start back up, area petrochemical plants spewed chemicals, some of which are cancer-causing, into the air.
In the Eagle Ford Shale play, flooding caused by the hurricane toppled barrels of oil. They emptied into the Guadalupe River, which feeds into the San Antonio Bay.
A flock of whooping cranes will fly from Canada to use that bay and others around it next month, continuing their crawl back from near extinction.
And lest we forget, people fish those bays, too, Metzger said.
Look around the Crossroads and you’ll see plenty of examples of how man affects Mother Nature.
For example, man created an island about 4 miles off the coast of Port O’Connor.
And man is similarly destroying it.
In 1962, the state dug the Matagorda Ship Channel and molded the island from the displaced sediment.
The island is known by several names – Sundown Island, Bird Island, and finally, Chester Island, for its late warden Chester Smith.
Now a popular nesting spot for thousands of birds in the spring, it loses as much as 30 feet annually from the wakes of big ships and other factors.
Audubon Texas, which leases the island from the state, tries to mitigate that, and it has had some success.
Recently, the Army Corps of Engineers added more sediment to the island after it went several years without it.
But Harvey cut off 4 acres from the island and downed trees and shrubs on the southwest side that the reddish egret, a bird listed by the state as threatened, prefers to nest in, said Iliana Pena, Audubon Texas’ director of conservation.
It won’t be easy to simply grow those plants back because there is no source of freshwater on the island, she said.
The other 177 islands Audubon Texas leases from the state are likely worse off.
They’re so small (between half an acre and two acres) they could now be underwater because of Harvey’s storm surge, useless to the birds who will need them.
Pena said that’s why it’s important Audubon Texas and its partners build other islands for birds as funds become available.
“This scenario that just played out is concerning because when you only have that one island that provides all that habitat for those birds in this part of the coast, a hurricane can devastate that site, and then what do you do? We’re trying to build resiliency,” she said.
Hurricane Harvey also hastened Magnolia Beach’s erosion.
Now, county workers are faced with getting the destination, popular with families not wanting to spend an arm and a leg for an one-day excursion, in tip-top shape. They must do so with a budget less than $1 million, much of which has already been spent this late in the year.
“The unfortunate thing is that Calhoun County doesn’t have a parks and recreation department, so Commissioner David Hall is really hamstrung,” said Tom Andrews, president of the Magnolia Volunteer Fire Department.
Andrews moved to Magnolia Beach about 20 years ago and has seen it erode 30 to 40 feet in that time.
He said the erosion reminds him of “a fat man in a bathtub.”
“When the ships pass through, they raise the water level, and as the water level recedes, it pulls the beach material out,” he said.
When Andrews recently gave a tour of the area, he wanted to stop at the La Salle monument in Indianola, which he thinks best depicts this erosion. But first he showed a picture of the same spot from the 1940s.
“The beach was two football fields from the monument in the ’40s. It’ll blow your mind where it is now,” he said.
The beach in front of the monument was long gone. Behind it, though, was a flare from a petrochemical plant.
It’s a crude analogy, but flaring is like turning the hot water on to shower, Formosa Spokesman Bill Harvey said.
It was Formosa’s flare behind the La Salle monument. Formosa began its startup Tuesday, Harvey said.
Like the water running in your shower taking time to warm, so too do Formosa’s hydrocarbons not meet specifications immediately. As a result, they must be released. In this case, they are released into the air instead of down a drain, he said.
But environmentalists are alarmed at what they see Formosa and other petrochemical plants releasing.
Neil Carman, a former investigator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, was one of several who tried to quantify it. He found Formosa was releasing the most emissions in the state in the days after the hurricane.
Across the state, plants reported to the TCEQ releasing almost 7 million pounds of pollutants into the air between Aug. 23 and Thursday, said Carman, who now works as the Sierra Club of Texas’ Clean Air director.
Shaye Wolf, the climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, paid special attention to pollutants hazardous to humans.
Long-term exposure to benzene and butadiene causes cancer, she said.
Formosa reported to the TCEQ it would release an estimated 27,719.75 pounds of benzene and 58,978.76 pounds of butadiene during its shutdown and startup, according to TCEQ’s database.
Short-term exposure to benzene and butadiene causes irritation to the eyes, skin and lungs. Benzene also is known to harm developing fetuses, while butadiene can injure a person’s cardiovascular system, Wolf said.
These reports are just estimates. The plants have 14 days to provide TCEQ with more accurate numbers.
But Carman worries about what will happen in the meantime.
Although Formosa said its elevated flares reduce the contaminants in the air by as much as 99 percent, a video his Sierra Club colleague took while driving through Point Comfort tells a different story, he said.
The smoke coming from the flare overshadows the town of 721 people’s water tower.
A lot of smoke means a lot of unburned benzene and hydrocarbons are being released, Carman said. And most petrochemical plants, Formosa included, have devices attached to their flares that measure only what’s going in, not what’s going out, so they can’t prove 99 percent of the contaminants have been burned off.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, it just blows away,’ but that’s not necessarily true. That stuff is going to come down, and somebody is going to breathe it. That’s my concern,” Carman said.
Both Carman and Wolf said there’s technology that minimizes the plants’ need to dispel these pollutants, but it’s pricey. Flare gas recovery equipment, costs at least $10 million, Carman said.
Other plants in the Crossroads that reported emissions related to the hurricane as of Friday were Dow in Seadrift and Invista in Victoria.
Dow reported 13 pounds of ethylene oxide was leaked during its shutdown. A spokeswoman, Gabriella Cone, said Dow quickly identified where the leak was and repaired it.
SkyTruth, a nonprofit that uses satellite imagery and remote sensing data to identify and monitor threats to the planet’s natural resources, reported Invista in Victoria County released ammonia and nitric oxide when it shut down.
Invista spokeswoman Amy Hodges said Invista reported the release to the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center.
She said Invista was operating in a manner that was safe and protected the environment.
Upstream, as the Guadalupe River flooded near Westhoff on Aug. 29, four tanks belonging to ConocoPhillips fell over, spilling 16,160 gallons of produced oil and about 3,192 gallons of produced water.
After the spill, DeWitt County Emergency Management Coordinator Cyndi Smith appeared to try to soothe environmental concerns for the recipients of her news release by adding the water would dilute the oil and lessen any hazard it posed.
In an interview with the Advocate later, Smith went a step further.
“There was nothing that could have been done to prevent it, except Hurricane Harvey not coming around,” she said.
ConocoPhillips spokesman Daren Beaudo said as soon as the company could, it had a contractor in the area to clean up the spill, but there wasn’t anything visible to clean.
He said they also took samples and did not find any hydrocarbons present. He said the tanks couldn’t have been moved before the hurricane and the subsequent flooding.
A few days later, Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Operating notified the commission its well in Matagorda Bay was leaking wet gas at an estimated 500,000 cubic feet per day. The company, like ConocoPhillips, hired a contractor to get the spill under control within a day. Chesapeake did not respond to a request for an interview.
These waterways support the only wild flock of whooping cranes in the world.
Legal battles have been fought about how the quality of these waterways affect whooping cranes and what they like to eat: blue crabs and wolfberries.
Texas’ drought from 2008 to 2009 caused the water to be more salty and killed 10 percent of the flock, Tim Grunewald, the director of North America Programs for the International Crane Foundation, said earlier this year during a presentation at the University of Houston-Victoria.
But Wade Harrell, the whooping crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he was optimistic that flock, which has a record number of fledglings flying in from Canada, can handle whatever Hurricane Harvey has thrown its way.
Although Harrell hadn’t been able to get to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge yet, he said the storm surge may have killed invasive species there, allowing the water from the Guadalupe River to replenish marshes where the whooping cranes forage.
Perhaps this hurricane will be like the wildfires raging in the West, he said. Perhaps its devastation will give way to growth.
But with Victoria and other cities under a boil water notice for days after the storm, Audubon Texas’ Iliana Pena urges everyone to help the whooping cranes and other wildlife along.
In just eight days, the Victoria County’s Office of Emergency Management coordinated the distribution of almost 44,000 cases of water (some had 12 bottles to a case while others had 18 or 24) and 67,000 bags of ice, said Rick McBrayer, who leads the office.
That doesn’t take into account other relief efforts by churches and businesses in the area.
At the same time, the city of Victoria suspended its recycling program while workers haul away the trash and brush that have accumulated, city spokesman O.C. Garza said.
The plastic will make its way to water and become death traps for whooping cranes, sea turtles and other wildlife.
“Appeal to people,” Pena said, “Tell them if they’re on the beach, take a bag with them and, please, pick up trash.”