When Hurricane Harvey parked over Texas on Aug. 25, 2017, the storm dumped record amounts of rain on Houston and Galveston — an area “home to thousands of petroleum refineries, chemical manufacturing plants and Superfund sites,” according to The Los Angeles Times.
Concerns over air and water pollution arose immediately, and by the time the hurricane wandered north and east on Sept. 4, an unprecedented degree of environmental destruction was left in its wake.
“Smokestacks, pipelines and generators had been damaged or destroyed. Storage tanks filled with toxic chemicals were battered and leaking,” the Times noted. “Superfund sites were flooded, spilling hazardous waste into nearby rivers, streams and neighborhoods.”
Though Texas’ environmental agency and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials began monitoring for pollutants in the area and determined the air quality was fine, residents and rescuers were complaining of fumes.
Analyses by environmental groups and news reports described “clouds of benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals floated over the city,” the Times said.
Those reports attracted the attention of NASA’s Atmospheric Tomography Mission researchers, who believed they could provide vital assistance by deploying advanced equipment unavailable to the EPA or the state of Texas.
But according to documentation reviewed by the Times and interviews with dozens of scientists and officials, NASA’s offer was declined.
Why? “EPA and state officials argued that NASA’s data would cause “confusion” and might “overlap” with their own analysis — which was showing only a few, isolated spots of concern,” the Times wrote.
Michael Honeycutt, Texas’ director of toxicology, wrote in an email to NASA officials that, “At this time, we don’t think your data would be useful.”
Honeycutt added that the low-flying helicopters equipped with infra-red cameras his agency had contracted would suffice.
But those efforts pale in comparison to the capabilities of NASA’s researchers, whose plane offers “the most precise and comprehensive airborne air quality lab on the planet” and can analyze more than 450 species of air-pollutant compounds, compared to the EPA’s “single-prop plane can gather some basic chemistry of about two dozen.”
David Gray, the EPA’s deputy regional administrator in Texas who led the agency’s emergency response, told NASA and Texas officials he didn’t want the researchers to “collect additional information that overlaps our existing efforts,” noting that media and non-governmental organizations were already producing data that contradicted the state and EPA’s assessments.
The Times noted that the “key decision-maker was Honeycutt, known for his energy industry-friendly views on toxic chemicals and pollutants.”
Just six weeks later, Honeycutt would be appointed by Trump’s EPA as “chairman of the agency’s Scientific Advisory Board, an independent panel of scientists charged with providing advice to the agency’s administrator.”
The EPA has maintained that NASA’s services were not needed and that the decision was ultimately left to state officials.
And though it is impossible to know what NASA’s researchers might have found — which could have been nothing of concern — the Times noted that reports suggested the assistance was indeed warranted:
“An investigation from the Associated Press and the Houston Chronicle showed there was widespread, unreported pollution and environmental damage in the region. The team identified more than 100 Harvey-related toxic releases, most of which were never publicized or vastly understated, including a cloud of hydrochloric acid that leaked from a damaged pipeline and a gasoline spill from an oil terminal that formed ‘a vapor cloud.’”