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The ghosts of Houston’s past polluters lurk in every floodplain

Should You Be Worried About Renting This Renovated House on the East Side of Houston? The refineries are miles away, after all. Is it better to go with the house on the west side, away from the toxins you hear about near the rail yards?

It turns out that none of these questions can be answered with the information available, as many former industrial facilities that landfill their hazardous waste on site have never been documented by government agencies. And, many of these sites show no trace of their past. Industrial “ghosts” in the form of contaminated soil may still be present under a new home, behind the corner cafe, or in a field of grass. Worse still, the risks they pose are compounded by extreme flooding made more frequent by climate change.

This is the case in cities across the countrybut especially Houston, where the next major storm threatens to displace not only people and homes, but also land pollution left behind by past industrial activities.

In 2019, researchers from the US Government Accountability Office studied climate-related risks in the 1,571 most polluted properties in the country, also called Superfund sites on the federal list of national priorities. They found that an alarming 60% were in places at risk of climate-related events, including wildfires and floods.

As disturbing as these figures may seem, our research shows that this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Many times that number potentially contaminated sites from former industrial activities exist. Most have never been documented by government agencies, which only began collecting data on industrially contaminated land in the late 1980s and thereafter only for large polluters. Today, many of these undocumented sites have been redeveloped for other uses such as homes, buildings or parks.

For communities near these sites, flooding of contaminated land is worrisome because it threatens to compromise common methods of pollution containment, such as covering contaminated land with clean soil. It can also transport legacy contaminants into surrounding soils and waterways, endangering the health and safety of urban ecosystems and residents.

We study urban pollution and environmental changes. In a recent studywe conducted a comprehensive assessment by combining historical manufacturing directories, which locate the majority of former industrial facilities, with flood hazard projections from the First Street Foundation. These projections use climate models and historical data to assess future risks for each property.

The results show that the GAO’s 2019 report grossly underestimated the scale and scope of the risks that many communities will face in the coming decades. Our interactive map allows you to locate yourself near former industrial sites. Although this does not answer all your questions, it is a first step.

Pollution risks in 6 cities

We began our study by collecting the location and flood risk of former industrial sites in six very different cities facing different types of flood risk over the next few years. One was Houston; the other five were Minneapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon, and Providence, Rhode Island.

These former industrial sites were called the ghosts of past polluters. While the chimneys and factories of these relics may no longer be visible, much of their legacy pollution likely remains.

In only these six cities, we found more than 6,000 locations at risk of flooding within the next 30 years – far more than recognized by the EPA. Using census data, we estimate that nearly 200,000 residents live on blocks with at least one flood-prone relict industrial site and any legacy contaminants it left behind. In Harris County, that number is nearly 78,000.

Without detailed records, we cannot assess the extent of contamination at each relict site or how that contamination might spread during floods. But the sheer number of flood-prone sites suggests the United States has a widespread problem it will need to address. And soil surveys by scientists across the country reveal significant contamination in the Urban core of cities such as New Orleans, Indianapolis and Detroitlead and other toxic metals are often the most common.

The highest-risk areas nationwide tend to cluster along waterways where industry and worker housing once thrived, areas that have often become home to low-income communities.

Legacy of the Industrial Northeast

In Providence, an example of an older industrial city, we found thousands of at-risk relic sites scattered along Narragansett Bay and the floodplains of the Providence and Woonasquatucket rivers.

Over the decades, as these factories produced textiles, machine tools, jewelry and other products, they released untold amounts of persistent contaminants into the environment, including heavy metals like lead and cadmium. and volatile organic chemicals, in surrounding soils and water.

For example, the Rhode Island Department of Health recently reported widespread contamination of drinking water by PFAS, often referred to as “eternal chemicals”, which are used to create stain and water resistant products and can be toxic.

The tendency of older factories to locate near water, where they would have easy access to electricity and transport, now exposes these sites to the risk of extreme storms and sea level rise. Many of these were small factories easily overlooked by regulators even today.

Chemicals, Oil & Gas

Newer cities, like Houston, are also vulnerable. Houston faces particularly high risks given the extent of nearby oil, gas and chemical manufacturing infrastructure and its lack of formal zoning regulations. And, of course, we flood, not just along a single shoreline or a single river, but through a dense network of local bayous and tributaries.

In August 2017, historic rainfall from Hurricane Harvey triggered over 100 industrial spills in the greater Houston area, releasing more than half a billion gallons of hazardous chemicals and wastewater in the local environment, including well-known carcinogens such as dioxin, ethylene and PCBs.

Even this event does not reflect the full extent of land polluted by industry and at increasing risk of flooding across the city. We found nearly 2,000 relict industrial sites at high risk of flooding in the Houston area; the GAO report only raised concerns about 15.

Many of these properties are concentrated in or near communities of color. Across the six cities in our study, we found that the best predictor of a neighborhood containing a flood site of hazardous former industries is the proportion of non-white, non-English speaking residents. This model is unfair and too familiar. This is also only part of the story. Even a quick glance at the map shows that a wide range of Houston neighborhoods have industrial ghosts at high risk for future flooding.

Keeping communities safe

As temperatures rise, the air can hold more moisture, resulting in heavy showers. These downpours can trigger flooding, especially in paved urban areas with less open ground for the water to sink into. Climate change is also contributing to sea level rise, as coastal communities like Annapolis, Marylandand Miami discover with more flood days at high tide.

Keeping communities safe in a changing climate will mean cleaning up flood-prone industrial sites. In some cases, companies can be held financially responsible for cleanup, but often they are ghosts, bankrupt. Thus, the costs fall on the taxpayers.

The infrastructure bill that Congress passed in 2021 includes $21 billion for environmental remediation. As a key part of new “green” infrastructure, some of this money could be funneled to flood-prone areas or invested in developing clean-up techniques that don’t fail in flooding.

Our results suggest that the whole process of prioritizing and clearing relict sites needs to be reconsidered to incorporate future flood risks.

Flood and pollution risks are not separate issues. Dealing with them effectively requires deepening relations with local residents who bear disproportionate risks. If communities are involved from the start, the benefits of ecological redevelopment and mitigation efforts can extend to a much larger population.

One approach suggested by our work is to go beyond individual properties as the basis for environmental hazard and risk assessment and to focus on affected ecosystems. For example, in Houston, the floodplains of each bayou – Buffalo, White Oak, Brays, Halls, Greens, etc. – could each have specific plans.

Focusing on individual sites misses the historical and geographic scale of industrial pollution. Focusing remediation on significant ecological units, such as watersheds, can create healthier environments with less risk from future floods.

James R. Elliott is a professor of sociology at Rice University. Thomas Marlow is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Interacting Urban Networks at NYU Abu Dhabi, New York University. Scott Frickel is a professor of sociology and environment and society at Brown University. This article was originally published by The Conversation and adapted for the Houston Chronicle.


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