Water Contamination a Concern After Hurricane Harvey

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By David Schultz, Nushin Huq and Sylvia Carignan

Water contamination is among the main environmental threats facing emergency responders in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath.

The Environmental Protection Agency is prioritizing search and rescue for those who were stranded by the storm, but federal and state environmental agencies in the Houston and Galveston areas may soon face contaminated drinking water and flooded wastewater plants.

The EPA is investigating reports of spills and developing a plan to test floodwater for contaminants, according to David Gray, the acting deputy administrator for the EPA’s south central region. When floodwaters recede, he told Bloomberg BNA, project managers will assess each Superfund site in the hurricane-affected area for damage.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told Bloomberg BNA the agency would start removing debris once floodwaters recede.

Each response team—as well as companies operating in the affected area—is dealing with limited transportation options. “All of the ports in the area are shut down and no trucks or trains are moving in that area,” Scott Jensen, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, told Bloomberg BNA.

Flooded Facilities

While coastal communities in Harvey’s direct path were evacuated ahead of the hurricane, a number of Houston-area counties evacuated neighborhoods on Sunday and Monday as waters continued to rise in rivers, bayous and reservoirs. Some parts of the state have already received close to 40 inches of rain, according to National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

One of the primary environmental problems that officials in Texas will be working to avoid over the coming days is the widespread contamination of drinking water across flood-affected areas.

Utility-owned facilities that remove contaminants from drinking water may be unusable if they’re inundated with floodwaters, according to Kevin Morley, a federal relations manager with the American Water Works Association who specializes in emergency preparedness. But even if these facilities aren’t inundated, Morley told Bloomberg BNA, they may not have the power needed to run their pumps or an ability to get fuel for their generators.

This is especially a concern for small utilities that serve communities in sparsely populated rural areas because these utilities may not have the same level of redundancy in their backup power supplies as their big city counterparts.

Serious health problems can arise when a water utility loses power and its backup generators are damaged, according to Lara Zent, head of the Texas Rural Water Association.

“If their power goes out, all the pumps go out,” she told Bloomberg BNA. “The system is not functioning, it loses pressure, and you have potential contamination issues.”

Zent said her organization owns seven generators and already is getting calls from utilities in other parts of the state offering to donate their generators. She said TRWA staff were heading to areas east of Corpus Christi, but that, as of Aug. 28, still-rising flood waters are still preventing them from reaching areas outside of Houston.

Wastewater Backups

Alan Roberson, head of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, said Texas’ drinking water treatment facilities may fare relatively well because these types of facilities are usually built on higher ground.

That’s not the case with wastewater treatment plants, Roberson said. They’re typically built in the lowest-lying areas to take advantage of the gravitational flow of water.

Morley said wastewater plants are designed with a bypass that allows water to flow directly through them during big storms that overwhelm their capacity. However, this means that untreated raw sewage will be flowing directly into Texas’ waterways, which eventually deposit into the Gulf of Mexico.

Federal water pollution laws require states to limit the amount of pollution, such as wastewater, that their treatment plants discharge.

Gray said it’s too soon to discuss whether Texas will receive waivers on complying with these pollution statutes.

Utilities Helping Utilities

The scenario is not totally bleak for water utilities in flood-affected areas. Morley said Texas water officials will be able to rely on help from utilities in neighboring areas thanks to a program called the Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network, or WARN.

Through this program, water utilities across a state enter into agreements that allow them to share resources in the event of a disaster and then work out the financial arrangements later. It was created after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California and then expanded to nearly every state after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

As a result of WARN agreements, utilities from across Texas can send staff and equipment into Houston without having to worry whether or how they’ll be made financially whole, Morley said. He said utilities in San Antonio have already sent people to help out, even before the flood waters in Houston crested.

Additionally, EPA officials have been sent to Texas at the request of the state and are helping out in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s drinking water phone bank, according to EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman.

Bowman also said the EPA is preparing to send technical assistance teams to Texas to help inspect water treatment facilities to determine their functionality.

To contact the reporters on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bna.com; Nushin Huq in Houston at nhuq@bna.com; Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bna.com

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

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