Will Harvey Disaster Relief Go to Climate Polluters?
Many are concerned that most of the aid will go toward Texas businesses–including the fossil fuel industry, which contributed to the climate-change related catastrophe in the first place. TRNN speaks with Reggie James, director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. After Hurricane Harvey tore into Texas on August 25th, the US House of Representatives approved roughly $8 billion in initial emergency aid. Then, the US Senate added another $7.4 billion, making the entire contribution $15.3 billion.
But many are concerned that most of the aid will go towards businesses, including fossil fuel industry, which many climate scientists say have contributed to the catastrophic weather patterns and hurricane seasons that are upon us. With us to discuss the recovery and aid distribution in Texas is Reggie James. He is director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter. Reggie, good to have you with us today.
REGGIE JAMES: It’s good to be here, thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: Reggie, tell us about the recovery efforts underway. Have most people returned to their homes? Have the recovery efforts been equitable, in terms of who was hit the hardest?
REGGIE JAMES: Well, I think part of the problem is that the crisis is still going on for quite a few people. There are some people back in their homes. Most people are still trying to clean them out; removing material, getting rid of refuse, taking drywall down. So, there are still a lot of people that are out of their homes. It’s not just single family dwellings. It’s also apartments.
So, there are a large number of people that are still in other cities. There are people in Austin that evacuated, but they have nowhere to go back to. So the crisis is still going on for quite a few people.
SHARMINI PERIES: Okay. Now Hurricane Harvey dispersed toxic waste, much of it from petrochemical industry that has such a strong presence in Texas. Is this a huge concern for people at this time?
REGGIE JAMES: Oh, it’s a tremendous concern. You have to remember what the area that we’re talking about, the Houston Ship Channel, the largest petrochemical complex in the United States. But there are also multiple tens of Superfund sites, and then about the same number of state-designated Superfund sites.
There are uncapped oil and gas wells. There’s lots of chemicals on site. There were sewage treatment plants. There were all kinds of things that were flooded. There’s a concern about a Superfund site right now that was flooded and has leaked dioxin into the environment. So, it’s a huge concern. It’s overwhelming.
SHARMINI PERIES: So then, given these horrendous toxic chemicals that have been released into the environment, and proper clean-up is necessary, shouldn’t some of this money go to the sector that needs it to clean up these spaces?
REGGIE JAMES: Absolutely. And there is money going into those efforts now, existing money. But the new money has to go towards clean-up of mostly, if it’s distributed equitably, to making sure that the people who were displaced can have somewhere to live.
But the clean-up costs are being handled. But it’s going to be more than they have available now. I wanted to note that one of the things that was happening before the storm was a proposed cut to EPA’s budget of 30%, which would have really eaten into their ability to do exactly the work they have to do now.
SHARMINI PERIES: Okay. Now, some of this is, of course, a natural disaster, perhaps not covered by some of the insurances. Is the corporate sector bearing any of the brunt of the recovery?
REGGIE JAMES: It depends on what you mean by corporate sector. But, for instance, the oil and gas industry, the petrochemical industry, the refineries, they were fairly well-prepared in terms of damage to themselves. Not necessarily emissions, but damage to themselves. And they were fairly prepared in terms of preventing flood damage to their equipment. So, they’re doing fairly well.
But I doubt that their efforts to extract, I think their fair share of the problems that they caused. We have to remember that climate change has exacerbated these storms. And the oil and gas industry is probably the single biggest contributor to climate change. They also are responsible for a lot of the leaks, the emissions. So,I hope they can be held accountable. But there’s nothing to ensure that they will be, and that’s not been the priority of either the state or federal environmental agencies.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, do we have a sense of what actually needs to be dealt with, in terms of the chemical spills and the damage to the environment, the extent of the damage, what the recovery’s going to cost, and how people might be affected by these? We are looking at contaminations that could have a long-term impact on people.
REGGIE JAMES: Sure. One thing to keep in mind is what we should be preventing? Because storms of this magnitude are going to be a regular part of our lives. So, as we are dealing with this, we need to be dealing with the next one. One, we need to deal with ensuring that all the Superfund sites are secure and that there’s adequate resources to cleaning those up so that they’re not a problem on the next storm.
We need to do an assessment of all of the different things that were damaged by the flooding to ensure that people are not exposed to hazardous chemicals. And the clean-up needs to occur. But I can’t overemphasize how important it is for us to learn from this disaster and not think of it as an exception. It’s going to happen again. So, as we are cleaning up this one, we need to be preparing to ensure that the next one doesn’t leave us with as bad or worse problems. We don’t want to be in this cycle where we seem surprised that there are chemical spills in an area where there are chemicals everywhere.
SHARMINI PERIES: Okay. And in that vein, what would you like to see, Reggie, in terms of preparedness?
REGGIE JAMES: One, as I mentioned, we need to ensure that the Superfund sites are secure and that they’re being cleaned up on as rapid a schedule as possible. We need to ensure that there are strong standards in place for emissions, for start-ups, shut-downs,and upsets. They waived environmental laws when the crisis hit, so that companies could shut down at the last minute and with no limit on what emissions. There are still people living there that have to breathe this.
So, I want stronger standards, where they have to do something to minimize how much they’re releasing to the environment. But we also need to get off of the cycle of dependency on fossil fuels. So, one of the ways we do that is during the rebuilding effort, every place that we can put in place energy efficiency, reduce the amount of oil and gas needed, change that infrastructure. The real focus has to be on the next time as we’re resolving this time.
SHARMINI PERIES: Okay. Now, I understand there’s a hearing coming up on Monday, where some of this will be discussed. What’s at stake at those hearings?
REGGIE JAMES: Well it’s one of the initial hearings. The federal funds that you alluded to, the some $15 billion flows from the federal government to the state government. And then the state government decides how much the local governments get.
So, the State of Texas, it’s a House Appropriations, the Texas House of Representatives, the Appropriations Committee. It’ll be their first real discussion of allocating those funds, most of which is going to go to Houston, I hope. But also, the State will be discussing whether or not there are state funds that need to flow to deal with the disaster, not just in Houston, but all the way up the Ship Channel.
Texas has what’s known as a rainy day fund, which is more than $10 billion, that we hold in reserve. The Mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, said, “It rained. It’s raining. We need to access those funds.” So, a good plan where we’re ensuring that we’re not going to let people just go back and relocate into the areas where people shouldn’t be, so that the relocation and recovery effort moves people into other places, that those funds are allocated fairly and equitably.
There are rich people that live in these areas, that they’re being subsidized by insurance. And there are a number of people who have already have their lives rebuilt after different disasters. I’m paying for that as a taxpayer, and I think I shouldn’t have to and neither should anybody else. But there are a lot of people that are not there necessarily by their own choice. They work in those areas, they’ve lived there for generations, they’re low income. I hope a lot of those funds go toward relocating those people, and ensuring that they’re rebuilding communities in a safer area and actually paying attention to how these people’s lives are impacted. These are not people that have the resources to rebuild in the area, nor do they have the resources on their own to go restart their lives. They should come first.
SHARMINI PERIES: And finally, Reggie, The Texas Tribune reported that Scott Pruitt’s EPA has been refusing to publicly share the pollutant levels throughout the region, affected by, of course, Hurricane Harvey. While his agency continues to waive environmental safeguards, of course. So tell us about this issue and the significance of the possible closing, I understand, of the EPA office in Houston.
REGGIE JAMES: Well, the EPA office in Houston that is scheduled for closing is their chemical analysis lab. And it’s scheduled for closing in 2020. So, it’s not going to close immediately. But it is significant because we know these disasters are going to keep on hitting Houston. They’re going to keep hitting the Gulf Coast. So, you do need all of the chemical analysis capabilities as close to where we know the disasters are going to be as possible. So, it’s unwise to close that.
But that’s part of a trend we’ve been seeing with both the federal government with the Trump administration, and with EPA, and with the state regulators. Where they do everything they can to help industry. So when the disaster hits, instead of doing a very good assessment, having people on the ground, putting public and environmental safety first; they just told companies, “We’re going to waive the environmental rules.”
There are some that it might have made sense, but not as widespread as they did. The other thing is is they’ve been very close-mouthed about what the hazards actually are. They recovered over 500 barrels of some sort of hazardous material that they’re not saying what it is. But we’ve also seen a trend ever since 9/11, the overreaction to giving the public access to information about what dangerous chemicals are located in their communities.
These laws, the Toxics Release Inventory laws, were created years ago in response to the Bhopal disaster in India, where thousands of people were killed, and no one knew what the poisons were. So, we said in the United States that we would make sure the public knew what risks were in their communities.
We rolled those back out of an inflated fear of terrorism. But there’s been no terrorist risk, but there are lots of environmental hazard risks. There are serious public health and safety risks, because of the chemicals no one knows about and that the government is not telling people about. These are real and present dangers that shouldn’t be trumped by some speculative danger miles away.
SHARMINI PERIES: Reggie, I thank you so much for joining us today and giving us these insights. We look forward to having you back on The Real News Network.
REGGIE JAMES: Okay, thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.