Texas: A Tale of Fire and Rain

Yesterday Charles Pierce at Esquire Politics pointed out that Hurricane Harvey is rapidly becoming an ecological disaster that neither Texas or the federal government is prepared to handle. It is the result of bad decisions made by states that have deregulated industry over the years. To the point that even knowing if there is a safety issue in a community they aren’t allowed to even know about it, let alone act to prevent a disaster.

Item: In Crosby, Texas, there is a place called the Arkema chemical plant where they work with something called organic peroxides. This plant is located amid a residential and business district where, remarkably, human beings live and work. If the cooling systems in the plant fail, as they apparently have, these organic peroxides can explode. A 1.5 mile radius around the plant has been evacuated.

Item: Houston is home to a great number of SuperFund sites—at least a dozen in Harris County alone—because, what the hell, they have to be somewhere, right, and some place has to be the Petrochemical Capital Of America? From the WaPo:

With its massive petroleum and chemical industry, Houston, part of the “Chemical Coast,” presents a huge challenge in a major flooding event, said Mathy Stanislaus, who oversaw the federal Superfund program throughout the Obama administration. Typically the EPA tries to identify Superfund sites in a major storm’s path to “shore up the active operations” and “minimize seepage from sites,” Stanislaus said. “This is not the time to dictate; it’s the time to work together well with state and local officials to think about needs that need to be met.”

Item: In Baytown, there is a Chevron Phillips petrochemical facility in a place called Cedar Bayou. As you might have guessed from that name, the facility is, at present, fish food. ExxonMobil has similar problems, which it is involuntarily sharing with its fellow Texans and will be for some time.

Item: And this one may be my favorite, which is to say, the one that pushes me under the bed the furthest. On Galveston Island, there is the Galveston National Laboratory, which is part of the University of Texas Medical Branch. This laboratory contains some of the most deadly biological agents found in the known world, many of them of the airborne variety. It contain several Bio-Safety Level 4 labs, which are basically the places where plagues are studied. And here’s the thing, as HuffPost explains—nobody knows what’s going on there at the moment:

There has been almost no news from Galveston as journalists have reported being blocked from reaching the island because of severe flooding. There has been no reporting at all on the condition of the lab. A call to the laboratory on Tuesday immediately went to voicemail.

Here’s a professor with some happy news.

But the generators run on fuel that would have to be replenished. It is not known if the lab is accessible to emergency crews to refuel the generators, which are stored on the roof, according to the 2008 Times piece. “As I see it the existential problem is this: What happens if and when the fuel for the back-up generators runs out?” asked University of Illinois professor Francis Boyle, an expert in biological weapons. “The negative air pressure that keeps (the) bugs in there ends. And (the) bugs can then escape.”

Item: While the tragedy is vast and still unfolding, it was utterly and totally predictable. The Texas Gulf Coast has been Ground Zero for potential hurricanes since the Earth cooled and the continents separated. In 1900, a hurricane hit Galveston and killed 12,000 people. That one was a catastrophic surprise, there being no hurricane warning system at the time. This was after a similar storm had decimated nearby Indianola 25 years earlier. And yet…

Item: Repeatedly over the past 15 years, the Texas legislature refused to pass any plan to adapt the affected infrastructure as long as that legislation contained any reference to climate change. (The climate crisis, of course, is the thing that makes storms like Harvey the most predictable of all). As the International Business Times reports:

Burnam proposed his climate adaptation plan bill in 2009, 2011 and 2013. (The Texas legislature meets only every other year.) All three bills died in committee, either never coming up for a vote or making it out of one committee but, in a procedural sleight of hand, never being placed on the legislative calendar by the Republican-controlled Calendars committee. The bill would have required most major agencies in Texas to create a plan that included a “climate change vulnerability assessment” and review their programs and plan for how to complete their missions in light of changing climate conditions. That list of agencies includes the state’s Department of Housing, Department of Public Safety and Health and Human Services, all of which were caught off-guard by the scale of Harvey’s destruction. In 2007, Burnam also proposed a “global warming task force” that would have created a report studying the “global warming challenges and opportunities facing Texas” including “protecting public health from the effects of global warming.” That bill never was never voted on in the Energy Resources committee.

The governor of Texas at that time was Rick Perry, who now is the Secretary of Energy, not that he’s apparently doing anything there.

And, finally,

Item: Houston has been a flooding calamity waiting to happen for decades. The local and state governments stubbornly have refused to prepare it for a perfectly predictable meteorological catastrophe. Between its wild west zoning practices, its lascivious and unregulated romance with the petrochemical industry, and the fundamental facts of its underlying geology, the fourth-largest city in America essentially has sprawled itself across a dry lake bed, the consequences of which, we are finding out now, include the discovery that political obstinance, like water, inevitably finds its own level. From the L.A. Times:

The storm was unprecedented, but the city has been deceiving itself for decades about its vulnerability to flooding, said Robert Bea, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and UC Berkeley emeritus civil engineering professor who has studied hurricane risks along the Gulf Coast. The city’s flood system is supposed to protect the public from a 100-year storm, but Bea calls that “a 100-year lie” because it is based on a rainfall total of 13 inches in 24 hours. “That has happened more than eight times in the last 27 years,” Bea said. “It is wrong on two counts. It isn’t accurate about the past risk and it doesn’t reflect what will happen in the next 100 years.”

The effects of climate change are just an exacerbating bonus. It is now apparent that the city of Houston has managed itself in a way that was not dissimilar to the Monty Python sketch about the apartment building constructed through hypnosis. Stop believing in it, and it all falls to pieces.

The spell, of course, in this case, was cast 30 years ago, when it became political death to increase anybody’s taxes who had any political influence at all. It was cast 30 years ago, when conservative movement politics pitched deregulation as a panacea. It was cast 30 years ago when the fiction of a “business-friendly” environment overcame Republican governors, and more than a few Democrats as well. It was cast 30 years ago when conservative movement politics declared that important decisions on things like the environment and public health were better left to the states, despite the fact that many states, like Texas, were unable or unwilling to pay to do these jobs properly. It was cast 30 years ago when conservative movement politics consciously moved away from empirical research and science, beginning the long march that has ended with a Republican party committed root and branch to all of these fanciful propositions, and to climate denial. It has filtered down through all the levels of politics, from the White House and the Congress, to the state houses and the local zoning boards.

Once, long ago, the conservative activist Grover Norquist famously said that he wanted to shrink “government” to a size at which it could be drowned in the bathtub. Well, people actually are drowning in Houston now, and so is the political philosophy that reached its height when Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural that government wasn’t the solution, but the problem itself. We all moved onto a political flood plain then, and we’re being swept away.

Last night, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reported about the heavily damaged Arkeme chemical plant in Cosby, Texas and the expected chemical explosion.

Then, as predicted, there was this: Houston flooding: two explosions take place at Texas chemical plant

A sheriff’s deputy was taken to hospital after inhaling chemical fumes, and nine others drove themselves to hospital as a precaution. The plant makes organic peroxides used in the production of plastic resins, polystyrene, paints and other products.

Arkema, the industrial chemical manufacturer that runs the plant, said it was notified at approximately 2am by the Harris County Emergency Operations Center of two explosions and black smoke.

“Organic peroxides are extremely flammable and, as agreed with public officials, the best course of action is to let the fire burn itself out,” the company said.