Low-income and minority communities could be facing a new challenge from Hurricane Harvey – toxic water. An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity found that nine of 16 flooded Superfund sites were in neighborhoods where a majority of residents are minority or low-income. A New York Times investigation discovered E. coli levels at four times the amount considered safe in “water flowing down Briarhills Parkway in the Houston Energy Corridor.”
“There’s pretty clearly sewage contamination, and it’s more concentrated inside the home than outside the home,” Lauren Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who participated in The Times’s research said. “It suggests to me that conditions inside the home are more ideal for bacteria to grow and concentrate. It’s warmer and the water has stagnated for days and days. I know some kids were playing in the floodwater outside those places. That’s concerning to me.”
In the Clayton Homes public housing development, which is alongside the Buffalo Bayou, levels of E. coli were measured 135 times higher than what’s considered safe. The water also included elevated levels of “lead, arsenic and other heavy metals in sediment from the floodwaters in the kitchen.” The Buffalo Bayou has been polluted for years, and it’s been reported that minority residents have suffered the most from the consequences.
Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency said they are still trying to get a handle on what exactly is percolating in the lingering floodwaters which contaminated many people’s homes and personal belongings.
They already know it’s some mix of bacteria, viruses, metals and other potentially toxic pollutants leached from the myriad of refineries and chemical plants in the area, along with an untold number of submerged septic tanks and dozens of Superfund sites.
Collecting enough samples to draw sweeping conclusions about how polluted the water is, and the impact to specific neighborhoods, could take a while – especially as government agencies grapple with staffing shortfalls.
“We’re trying to get a good picture of what’s in the water,” said Latrice Babin, the deputy director of pollution control for Harris County. She said the staff of about 10 water samplers at the agency is struggling to complete testing of industrial sites and waste water treatment facilities. Gov. Greg Abbott says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had completed site assessments at all 43 Superfund sites in areas affected by the storm. He said two of those sites – the San Jacinto Waste Pits and the U.S. Oil Recovery – will require further assessment, which will take several days to complete.
At least 168 water systems across the state impacted by Harvey still have boil-water notices, including the system in Beaumont.
Dr. James McCarthy, the chief of emergency medicine in the Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute, said the hospital has seen an uptick in soft tissue infections since the storm. That’s not surprising given that people are spending a lot of time in polluted floodwater.