ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Hurricane Harvey caused industrial facilities in Texas to release an extra 6 million pounds of pollution into the air. People who live and work near the plants are still worried about what they breathed in after the storm. And as NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports, many are frustrated with the federal government's response.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Here are the directions Juan Flores gave me to find his house. It's east of Houston. You go past the Kinder Morgan Pipeline, past the Magellan gas storage tanks. If you get to the railroad tracks leading to the Shell refinery, you've gone too far. His town, Galena Park, is small - lots of kids, lots of pets. And it's surrounded by petrochemical companies.
JUAN FLORES: A lot of my family that comes from Mexico will come visit us. And they'll come here and say, Juan, don't you smell that? And I'm like, smell what? Don't you smell that burnt smell in the air? I'm like, I don't smell nothing.
HERSHER: Juan's used to it. He's lived here since he was 4. But after the floods from hurricane Harvey, he says it was bad.
FLORES: My eyes were watering. We'd never smelled it this bad. Some people left Galena Park because they're like, man, I can't take this. People would turn off their ACs. I mean, there was no shelter in place, but we were like - you know, wondered why. But we're all wondering that.
HERSHER: Shelter in place. That's when the government announces there's something dangerous in the air; stay inside; close the windows. But after Harvey - nothing, just the strong smell of gasoline. Juan does community outreach for an air quality nonprofit in Houston called Air Alliance, so he knew to look for information from the Environmental Protection Agency. But for a week, the EPA's press releases didn't include air quality information.
SAM COLEMAN: We released our data as it became available.
HERSHER: Sam Coleman is the acting administrator for the EPA region that includes Texas. He points out the EPA's air monitors which are sprinkled all around the region, including in Juan Flores' town, had to be shut off as Harvey approached so they wouldn't be damaged by the storm. It took about a week to get most of them up and running again. In the meantime, the agency had a mobile air testing unit driving around and another one on an airplane overhead. Coleman says it all went pretty well compared to past hurricanes.
COLEMAN: For example, after Katrina, we found that there were often some circumstances where EPA and the state could not really communicate data very quickly and accurately. And we felt like we corrected that in this response by getting the information out in just a matter of days after it was collected.
HERSHER: EPA's first statement about air quality in the Houston area came eight days after the storm arrived. It said quote, "air quality at this time is not concerning, and local residents should not be concerned about air quality issues related to the effects of the storm." Christopher Sellers studies environmental history and the EPA at Stony Brook University. He says he has seen these kinds of reassuring statements before.
CHRISTOPHER SELLERS: That's classic. That is a - tried and true not just for environmental agencies but for public health agencies in general.
HERSHER: The problem is often that while government officials don't have a lot of data, they still feel pressure to say something.
SELLERS: They feel like they cannot admit uncertainty about dangers, particularly in the face of possible public panic.
HERSHER: The implications can be serious - for example, he says, after 9/11. Health officials reassured the public about the air around ground zero despite the fact that there actually wasn't any good data about the air quality there. Years later, long-term studies found thousands of workers had gotten sick from the air. Sellers says the underlying problem is that the EPA is not particularly well-equipped for emergencies, especially ones that involve invisible plumes of mixed chemicals wafting through neighborhoods. Still, he says, history tells us it's better to be open about limitations and uncertainty.
SELLERS: To say, you know, nothing's wrong when you don't know - I mean, you've got to be honest, and you've got to level with people.
HERSHER: Which is exactly what Juan Flores wants. By the time the EPA put out a press release saying there was nothing to worry about, he'd been smelling gas in his neighborhood for days.
FLORES: I mean, God, we smelled it. Why try to hide it? I mean, we're not idiots (laughter). I mean, you can tell us all you want. There's - y'all good, guys - ain't got nothing to worry about - [expletive]. We're the ones smelling it. You can't take the - I mean, you can't hide that.
HERSHER: It came out later that half a million gallons of gasoline had spilled around the corner from Flores' house. That's almost certainly what he had been smelling. It was the biggest known petrochemical leak caused by Harvey. The EPA says a quote, "significant amount evaporated into the air." Inhaling gasoline can cause respiratory problems. In larger amounts, it can damage organs or even cause cancer.
FLORES: Believe me. I think about it every day. I was like, I wonder how many years of my life I'm going to end up losing because I live out here. But it's home.
HERSHER: Yet he says if he has to leave his home to keep his family safe, he will. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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