DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Fifty inches of rain from a single storm - that's just one of the numbers that seems tough to believe. But some areas around Houston saw that much rainfall from Harvey. And with all the flooding here, there are concerns about safety at oil refineries and chemical plants. Workers at one plant and nearby residents have been evacuated in case of a possible explosion.
Beyond fears of a catastrophic failure, there are concerns about leaks that could turn floodwaters into a toxic soup and emissions that could poison the air. Given these conditions, it has been hard for companies to monitor what's going on or address any emerging issues. Mose Buchele from member station KUT reports.
MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: On Sunday morning, Jessica Hulsey woke up in her home in Houston's East End. She went to her front door to see how high the water had risen. But it wasn't the water that surprised her.
JESSICA HULSEY: As soon as I opened the door, the smell hit my nose.
BUCHELE: It smelled kind of like gasoline. And as it turns out, her neighbors smelled it, too.
HULSEY: So I was just asking myself, I wonder where this strong smell is coming from.
BUCHELE: Now she thinks she knows. As the storm pummeled and flooded the Gulf Coast, petrochemical plants that emit toxic chemicals were not spared. The roof of an Exxon Mobile refinery in nearby Baytown was damaged by the storm. Lettie Brysch is a spokesperson for that city.
LETTIE BRYSCH: They have a limited amount of crew at the location because they want to minimize any issues and safety concerns with their employees.
BUCHELE: She says a Chevron facility flooded, too. Refiners at Shell and Petrobras have also shut down plants. And in the town of Crosby, floods knocked out power to a peroxide plant, then the backup generators failed. Yesterday, officials said they evacuated employees and nearby residents because if the chemicals there aren't properly refrigerated, they might explode. Elena Craft is a toxicologist with the Environmental Defense Fund.
ELENA CRAFT: It's not just that we have refineries or petrochemical facilities or boutique chemical plants. We have everything.
BUCHELE: Industry says it's doing everything it can to minimize emissions caused by the storm. But Craft says the very act of shutting these plants down and restarting them actually produces pollution.
CRAFT: That's right. So basically, an analogy would be like the cold start of a car, where if you turn it off and then turn it back on - at least the older engines - it would take a while for the engine to heat up to the appropriate temperature to actually burn off some of the pollution.
BUCHELE: She's keeping track of filings with the state and expects around a million pounds of toxic chemicals will be released around Houston just as a result of the storm and floods, many of them carcinogenic.
CRAFT: That's the bottom line, isn't it? You know, how many pounds of benzene or butadiene would you like to be exposed to? None.
BUCHELE: She says much of that pollution won't be released until after the waters recede and the factories and refineries get back online. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin.
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