Irma’s Environmental Toll Could Be Less Than Harvey’s

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By David Schultz

The environmental toll from Hurricane Irma in Florida may not be as harsh as the problems caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, according to scientists and water utility officials.

Though emergency managers are still assessing the situation in the Sunshine State, it’s becoming clear that the hazards the two recent storms posed are very different and, as a result, the response to the two storms will be different as well.

Gary Williams, director of the Florida Rural Water Association, said wind damage is the primary concern after Hurricane Irma, rather than the widespread flooding seen after Hurricane Harvey. This makes the response effort in Florida easier, Williams told Bloomberg BNA, because water treatment facilities affected by the storm have roads that are still passable, unlike in Texas.

“It makes it easier for us to respond immediately,” Williams said as he drove a semitruck full of power generators to the small, rural water systems his group represents. “We can get access. You can’t get access to flooded facilities.”

Chuck Carden, chief operating officer of Tampa Bay Water, said another factor that mitigated Irma’s impact was the relatively long period of time Floridians had to prepare. This allowed his organization, which supplies water to communities throughout the Tampa Bay region, to go through the area and make sure the facilities had power generators that were functioning, fully fueled, and properly located.

As a result of this preparation, drinking water systems in Tampa were able to keep their pumps running and maintain water pressure despite widespread electric power outages across the state, Carden told Bloomberg BNA. He said that as of the afternoon of Sept. 11, no boil-water notices had been issued in Tampa. Notices were issued in other parts of the state, however.

Less Industrial Waste

Areas of Florida that are experiencing flooding likely won’t have to grapple with the level of contamination that Texans faced, according to Charles Haas, a professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Haas and his colleagues scrutinized the environmental problems triggered by Hurricane Katrina in a 2008 study. Florida doesn’t have the same concentration of industrial sites that Louisiana had back then or that the Houston area has now. That means there is less opportunity for harmful chemicals to seep into flood waters there, he said.

“There may very well be localized industry, but not to the sense that the petrochemical industry is very widespread in the Gulf,” Haas told Bloomberg BNA.

But Haas said he expects both Florida and Texas will be struggling with mold remediation in flooded properties for a long time. Managing indoor environmental quality is an often overlooked challenge that federal, state, and local officials will have to keep an eye on, he said.

“Properly remediating all the water-logged properties there is going to be a challenge,” Haas said.

Environmental Waivers

An estimated 6.5 million homes and businesses in Florida lost electricity, according to the governor’s office, and some were expected to remain without power for weeks.

A statement from Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) office said the state’s Department of Environmental Protection was forming a team with the Environmental Protection Agency to begin assessing and responding to any potential environmental hazards. At the same time, the state and the EPA issued waivers from environmental regulations in response to the storm to help Florida restock its supplies of motor fuel and maintain electric power.

The EPA announced Sept. 11 that it granted waivers from air pollution emissions limits and related requirements for all electricity generators in Florida through Sept. 26. The move was to ensure that the facilities could provide enough power after the storm.

Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said the state would check air quality despite the power plant waivers. Monitoring and reporting requirements remained in effect, and the reports would be submitted to the department and publicly available, she told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 11.

—With assistance from Chris Marr in Atlanta.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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