The proposed safety changes in Louisiana come nearly 10 years after the U.S. Chemical Safety Board warned that oil batteries in rural areas posed a unique and dangerous attraction.
The proposed safety changes in Louisiana come nearly 10 years after the U.S. Chemical Safety Board warned that oil batteries in rural areas posed a unique and dangerous attraction.
At least 168 people, mainly children, have died after falling into abandoned coal-mining pits across Indonesia over the past seven years, according to a new report.
The number of people believed missing from the quake and tsunami that struck Indonesia's Palu city has soared to 5,000, an official said Sunday, an indication that far more may have perished in the twin disaster than the current toll.
Authorities confirm early morning evacuations in neighborhood surrounding blast in Center Township, but no word on any injuries.
Many fear a spill would be inevitable and could reach the Bay and its resources under the right conditions.
By Ken Ward Jr. Staff writer 10 hrs ago (0)
Thousands of Kanawha Valley residents, businesses and workers now can file claims to receive their share of the $151 million settlement of the class-action lawsuit over the January 2014 water crisis.
This week, tens of thousands of notices about the settlement went out in the mail, along with separate notices that were emailed to a list of West Virginia American Water Co. customers.
Notices sent by mail include the simple claim form that most residents can use to file their claims. Claims can also be filed online and paper copies of claim forms downloaded from the settlement website, https://www.wvwaterclaims.com/. More information is available by calling 1-855-829-8121 or reading the “Frequently Asked Questions” list on the website.
Deadline for filing claims is Feb. 21, 2018, under an order issued by U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver Jr., who is overseeing the case.
“This is the only way to make sure you get any money from the settlement,” the notice mailed out this week says in encouraging claims to be filed.
Under the settlement, residential households — including homeowners and renters — can file a simple claim form and obtain $550 for the first resident and $180 for each additional resident. Residents also may file more detailed information about their losses — for things such as bottled water or replacement appliances — if they provide proof of those expenditures on a separate type of claim form.
Businesses and nonprofit organizations can likewise obtain flat payments, based on their size, or can submit documentation of specific losses to have those recouped.
The settlement also provides additional payments to women who were pregnant at the time of the chemical spill that sparked the water crisis, residents who had medical expenses and hourly-wage earners who lost money when businesses they worked in closed during the crisis. Government agencies also are eligible to submit claims.
Residents, businesses and others don’t have to have previously hired a lawyer or signed up for a lawsuit to be eligible, but they do have to file claims.
Anyone who falls within the definition of the “class” covered by the settlement can file a claim for compensation. The class covered by the case includes 224,000 residents and 7,300 businesses. It includes basically any business or resident who received tap water from the Elk River intake plant and any hourly-wage earner whose employer closed because of the spill and resulting water system contamination.
In the case, lawyers for residents and businesses had alleged that West Virginia American did not adequately prepare for or respond to the spill and that MCHM-maker Eastman did not properly warn Freedom of the dangers of its chemical or take any action when Eastman officials learned that the Freedom facility was in disrepair. West Virginia American and Eastman continue to deny any liability. They say the blame for the crisis rests with Freedom Industries, which admitted to criminal pollution violations related to the spill.
Distribution of the settlement funds will not start until the settlement receives final approval from Copenhaver, following a hearing scheduled for Jan. 9, and until after the Feb. 21 deadline for filing claims.
Members of the class have the right to “opt-out” of the settlement or to object to certain terms of the deal. The deadline for opting out or filing objections is Dec. 8. Class members also may ask for permission to speak during the Jan. 9 hearing on the settlement.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at
or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.
EPA approves plan to remove San Jacinto Waste pits from river
Superfund site that leaked in Hurricane Harvey will be cleaned up
By Lise Olsen Updated 9:08 pm, Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Photo: Michael Ciaglo, Staff
IMAGE 1 OF 18 The San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site sits under floodwater as members of the Army National Guard travel to Beaumont in Chinook helicopters to deliver hay to cattle stranded by Tropical Storm Harvey ... more
The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday approved a plan to permanently remove tons of toxics from the San Jacinto Waste Pits - a Superfund site that was heavily flooded and began to leak cancer-causing dioxin into the river after Hurricane Harvey.
The plan, which comes after years of litigation and citizen activism that built public support for permanently removing the pits from the San Jacinto River, includes installing cofferdams to prevent release of the pollutants before excavating and removing an estimated 212,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated material.
The decision comes only two weeks after the EPA confirmed that a concrete cap used to cover the pits since 2011 had sprung a leak during Harvey's floods. An EPA dive team found dioxin in sediment near the pit in a concentration of more than 70,000 nanograms of dioxin per kilogram of soil - more than 2,300 times the EPA standard for clean-up.
The extent of damage caused by that release remains unknown. But flooding of the Superfund site prompted the EPA's Scott Pruitt to visit the area and move up a decision on the proposed clean-up plan that had been pending for about a year. The estimated cost is $115 million, the EPA announced.
Hundreds of families in riverfront neighborhoods east of Houston fear that massive flooding has poisoned their land and fouled their wells with sewage, industrial pollution and toxic sediment from the region's most notorious Superfund site - the San Jacinto Waste pits. (Drone video taken by: Greg Moss)
Media: Houston Chronicle
Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan says finding that dioxin was exposed at the waste pits during the flooding was frightening proof that the EPA needed to act.
"And let's be clear: What we had from Hurricane Harvey was a rain event. Had the storm hit closer to Harris County, we would have experienced high winds and storm surge."
Jackie Young, an organizer and grass-roots activist who has spent six years fighting for clean-up, described the decision as an "enormous victory and we are sincerely appreciative that the EPA has chosen the only option that is protective of public health and the environment."
It appears though that rather than a final solution, the plan will only unleash additional litigation from at least one of three companies that are responsible for the clean-up. A spokesman for McGinnes Industrial Maintenance announced Wednesday that company will oppose removal.
"We cannot support a plan for the site that provides less protection to all affected communities than the existing cap already has provided," the company said. "We are deeply concerned that the decision announced today could result in a release to the San Jacinto River and downstream areas. We disagree with EPA's claim that the local or downstream areas can be protected during removal."
The dangers of the San Jacinto Waste Pits site, along the Interstate 10 bridge in east Harris County, were first recognized by local authorities in 2005 after the site flooded in Hurricane Ike. The pits were then added to the EPA's National Priority List in 2008.
In 2011, the site was capped with a concrete barrier. Yet over the years, dioxin has leaked out from the pits, county officials and researchers say.
Signs posted in the area warn people not to eat fish or crabs caught near the pits - which are near popular fishing holes and public parks in Channelview, Baytown and along the road that leads to the Lynchburg ferry. Research by the University of Houston's Hanadi Rifai found hotspots of dioxin linked to paper mill waste have traveled down the river and into Galveston Bay.
The pits already have provoked a series of civil lawsuits from area residents, fishermen and Harris County officials who fear that both the environment and area neighborhoods already have been poisoned. One pending case involves 600 area residents who live or owned property along the river in Baytown, Channelview, and Highlands.
Though the pits were originally on the riverbanks, over time the river has flooded the site numerous times. The pits were entirely submerged by a fast-moving wall of floodwater in Hurricane Harvey.
An unusual alliance of Houston area congressmen, Harris County officials and citizen groups had all united to urge the EPA to approve a plan to permanently remove of toxics from the site.
In one report issued about the dangers of the pits, Samuel Brody of Texas A & M University called the site a "loaded gun" with the potential to damage the entire Galveston Bay ecosystem.
The Harris County attorney's office said the EPA's decision will require the companies that deposited the waste to remove it at the companies' cost.
The approved plan would remove an estimated 152,000 cubic yards of material contaminated with dioxin at the I-10 bridge. An additional 50,000 cubic yards will be removed south of the bridge and all those materials will be deposited "into a secure, stable, inland permitted facility," according to a county press release.
6-week trial likely to unfold in 2018
CBC News Posted: Oct 13, 2017 6:30 AM AT Last Updated: Oct 13, 2017 6:39 AM AT
Helene Beaulieu and George Cooper, lawyers for Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. in Saint John, will make a Charter challenge part of the company's defence against 15 pollution charges. (Brian Chisholm, CBC)
Irving Pulp and Paper to challenge constitutionality of pollution charges
Irving Pulp and Paper charged with dumping into St. John River
J.D. Irving Ltd. to invest $513M in its mills
Irving Pulp and Paper's plan to launch a constitutional challenge to Canada's environmental regulations is expected to shine a bright light on water pollution standards for mills across the country.
The company, which has a mill at the Reversing Falls in Saint John, is charged under the Fisheries Act with 15 counts of dumping a harmful substance into the St. John River.
If convicted of all charges, the company will face a minimum fine of $3 million.
Irving's defence will include a direct Charter challenge against the way a water pollution test used nationwide for several decades is applied by Environment Canada in its pollution regulations.
Known as the acute lethality test, the procedure involves placing live fish in a tank of pure mill effluent to see if they survive.
The test as its critics, including Lynn McCarty, an Ontario based eco-toxicologist who has published papers about it.
McCarty is not involved in the Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. case but has done consulting work in the past for parent company, J.D. Irving Ltd.
McCarty said the lethality test itself can be useful, but not enough information is gathered to know the actual impact effluent will have on fish once it's discharged into a river, harbour or other body of water.
In an interview, he referred to an old saying in the field of toxicology that everything is a poison — it is only a question of dose.
"Does the toxicity in the effluent mean that that's a deleterious substance when it's deposited into the body of water?" McCarty said. "And my answer would be, 'It depends.'
"I can open a case of scotch, pour it into an aquarium, put a fish in there. He dies. Then, my God. Alcohol is toxic, so we shouldn't be exposed to it. But people drink it every day and manage to get by because they're not exposed as much as that fish was."
In its Charter challenge, Irving is asking the court to strike down sections of the Fisheries Act tied to the lethality test when it comes to pulp and paper mills.
That suggestion is alarming to Matthew Abbott of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.
Irving Pulp and Paper faces charges under the Fisheries Act of depositing a deleterious substance into the St. John River over a two-year period beginning in 2014. (CBC)
He said the legislation depends on the test precisely because it is difficult to prove harm to the environment after the contaminated substance has disappeared into it.
"This is a really important part of the Fisheries Act that has been applied to great effect to the benefit of all Canadians," Abbott said.
Les Burridge, a retired toxicologist who spent 35 years with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said he stands by the test although he acknowledges it's not perfect.
He spent much of his career working with the lethality test to measure the impact of pollutants and farm chemicals on aquatic life.
Evidence of the death of fish in a tank of effluent is not intended to directly link to fish deaths in the wild.
Polluted water, he said, can have have sub-lethal effects, including on fish reproduction or the elimination of the animal's food source.
"We would typically say that lethality tests are designed to identify a hazard," Burridge said. "And that then that piece of information, along with other things, are used to assess risk.
"[The fish] might not eat as well, they might not grow as well."
Court dates will be set Oct. 19.
The six-week trial is expected to unfold in mid to late 2018.
Chevron has become the second big oil company to abandon plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight, almost exactly a year after BP ditched its more advanced plans for the untapped basin.
Oil companies have compared the potential of the bight to the Gulf of Mexico, where there are thousands of oil rigs.
But the push for fossil fuel exploitation of the region has come up against stiff opposition, since the bight also contains virtually pristine waters and is a vital breeding and feeding ground for many marine mammals, including 36 species of whales and dolphins.
Chevron had not submitted an environmental plan to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Agency). Before BP ditched its plans, its environmental plans were rejected by Nopsema three times, finding each time it failed to meet seven of eight requirements, including complying with relevant laws and demonstrating the environmental impacts would be acceptable.
Chevron said its decision had nothing to do with government policy, regulations, community or environmental concerns, but was purely commercial, blaming low oil prices and more competitive ventures off the coast of Western Australia.
The company indicated that its drilling licences could be sold to another party. Chevron Australia’s managing director, Nigel Hearne, said: “We are confident the Great Australian Bight can be developed safely and responsibly and we will work closely with the interested stakeholders to help realise its potential.”
After BP announced it was withdrawing from the bight, it said its licences would be transferred to its junior partner in the venture, Statoil. Statoil still plans to drill one exploration well before the end of 2019
BP is still paying more than half a million dollars a day for the drilling rig it had purpose-built for the Great Australian Bight to sit in standby mode.
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association said Chevron’s move was disappointing, since oil production in the bight would ease Australia’s reliance on imports.
But any oil produced would most likely be shipped to Asia owing to the lack of refining capability in Australia.
Environmentalists declared Chevron’s announcement a victory and called for Statoil and other companies with plans in the bight to follow suit.
“Chevron has worked out what BP realised when it withdrew from the Great Australian Bight a year ago almost to the day,” said Peter Owen, South Australia director of the Wilderness Society, which has been leading the campaign against drilling in the bight.
“BP’s decision showed that it’s too expensive to establish the significant and costly risk-management and clean-up capacity needed to protect our communities from the enormous spill risks associated with drilling in this part of the world,” he said.
“Statoil, Santos, Murphy and Karoon will face the same massive costs and increasing community opposition that BP and Chevron experienced. Statoil and others should quit the bight and leave the communities surrounding the bight in peace,” Owen said.
Sea Shepherd Australia’s managing director, Jeff Hansen, said: “We should not be expanding the fossil fuel industry into pristine treacherous seas where the risk of spills is far greater than we’ve seen before. A rapid transition away from this industry is our only hope for a liveable climate for our children.”
A Greenpeace Australia campaigner, Nathaniel Pelle, said: “The news Chevron has given up on drilling in the bight means the coastal communities of southern Australia have dodged another bullet, but the threat of Statoil still looms.
“Chevron’s announcement shows the only sane thing to do is for the federal government to terminate all oil leases in this area, reform our national oil regulations to world’s best practice, and move quickly to protect one of the world’s most biodiverse regions and the communities that surround it.”
The North Dakota oil industry pushed back Wednesday on several proposed oil and gas rule changes, expressing strong opposition to a rule related to reporting small spills.
The Department of Mineral Resources is taking public input on potential administrative rules, including a proposal in response to the law change approved this year that no longer requires spills under 10 barrels to be reported.
The department now proposes requiring oil companies to file a document, known as a sundry notice, within 10 days after cleanup of any spill that was not reported. The notice would include details about the spill, such as the type of liquid and an explanation of how the spill volume was determined.
The North Dakota Petroleum Council, representing more than 500 companies, called the proposal a “backdoor reporting requirement” that goes far beyond what legislators intended.
The industry group also objected to a new proposed rule that would require a full environmental assessment at a well site if there was uncertainty about spills or possible contamination.
No landowners testified Wednesday at public hearings held in Bismarck and Dickinson. The Northwest Landowners Association, which opposed changing the spill-reporting requirement, is planning to testify in support of the sundry notice proposal at a hearing in Minot.
“It’s still our property, and we want to know about every spill,” Chairman Troy Coons has said.
The oil industry group also objected to proposed changes to royalty statements introduced in response to a growing frustration among royalty owners about deductions being taken from their payments.
The department proposes requiring companies to clearly identify the amount and purpose of each deduction or adjustment made to a royalty payment.
Brady Pelton, government affairs manager for the Petroleum Council, said the proposal will not provide meaningful information to royalty owners and will cost companies an estimated $500,000 to $1 million to develop the software necessary to comply.
“The burdens on operators in North Dakota resulting from these changes could conceivably make the state a less competitive environment in which to operate,” Pelton said.
Jim Starr, a royalty owner who traveled from Minneapolis to testify at the Bismarck hearing, said the rule change would be a “welcome first step.” But he cautioned that it won’t be effective unless there is a clear enforcement policy.
“I don’t know how any rule changes can be enforced without some teeth in it,” Starr said.
(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)
A prestigious scientific organization on Wednesday called for more frequent and better inspections of freight railroad tracks to prevent potentially catastrophic oil and ethanol train crashes.
A report by the National Academies of Sciences also urged better training for emergency workers and questioned the validity of recent train speed regulation.
From 2005 to 2015, there were 21 derailments or collisions in the U.S. of trains hauling crude oil, resulting in the release of 1.6 million gallons (6 million liters). There were 58 ethanol train crashes over the same period, resulting in the release of 2.6 million gallons (9.8 million liters). The trains are often more than 100 cars long, and spilled oil or ethanol from ruptured tank cars has ignited and created giant fireballs that can last for days.
Several derailments were attributed to track problems that weren't detected in inspections shortly before the incidents. Federal regulations presume that inspectors won't always catch all track problems, but the report questions whether there should be an acceptable failure rate. It suggests that these rates and priorities for track repair be adjusted for routes used by trains hauling crude oil and ethanol.
The government should encourage railroads to make more frequent and comprehensive inspections of track on routes regularly used by oil and ethanol trains, including the use of advances in inspection technologies like sensors, high-resolution imaging and autonomous systems, the report said. Some railroads are using drones to increase track inspections.
Derailments of all kinds reached an all-time low in 2016, said Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads. Derailments involving crude oil account for less than 1 percent of all derailments, she said.
Railroads are already using many of the technologies mentioned in the report and are doing extensive research on ways "to make a safe network even safer," Kahanek said.
The report also questioned the technical basis for a recent safety regulation that reduced the maximum speed for oil trains to 50 mph (80 kph) in most areas and 40 mph (64 kph) in urban areas.
Of the 20 most serious train wrecks in which oil and ethanol were released in the United States from 2005 to 2015, none of the trains were traveling faster than 50 mph and only six were traveling at 40 mph or more, the report said.
Some safety advocates favor a 30 mph (48 kph) limit. The railroad industry opposes the lower speed, saying it would cause traffic jams and shipping delays.
Emergency responders in many of the communities traversed by oil and ethanol trains, especially volunteer fire departments in rural areas, still lack familiarity with procedures for handling a large-scale incident involving highly flammable liquids, the report said.
It recommended that emergency preparedness grants be used to assist "communities that are facing new and unfamiliar risks."
Clear guidelines are also lacking on the kinds of information railroads should provide state and local agencies to prepare for such emergencies, the report said. And it's unclear if the information railroads are sharing with state emergency planning agencies is getting to first responders.
Oil and ethanol train derailments continue, although the pace has slowed. In June, 20 cars of a 115-car oil train derailed while passing through Plainfield, Illinois on its way to Louisiana. A tank car leaked 20,000 gallons (76,000 liters) of crude oil, most of which burned, following a collision in April between two trains near Money, Mississippi.
Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP—Joan—Lowy
Enbridge Energy is arguing its proposed $2 billion Line 3 oil pipeline is critical to serve oil refineries in Minnesota and throughout the region.
The company's Wednesday filing with the state Public Utilities Commission delivered a sharp rebuke to previous testimony from the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
In September, the department surprised both supporters and opponents of the project when it argued that neither the current Line 3, nor the proposed expanded line, were necessary to meet the state's demand for oil, which has remained flat for the past decade.
Enbridge called the state's analysis "flawed" and said it "fails to take into account the immediate negative economic and supply consequences to Minnesota were Line 3 to be shut down."
Line 3 is part of an existing network of Enbridge pipelines that together transport nearly 3 million barrels of oil a day from Canada across northern Minnesota. Some of that oil is transferred to another pipeline system that serves Minnesota's two refineries. The rest is shipped to other refineries in the Midwest and beyond.
The existing line, which is about 50 years old, is corroding and requires increasing maintenance to keep it safe. Enbridge has proposed replacing it with a new line, along a different route, that would be able to carry nearly twice as much oil.
"This is an essential project for Minnesotans that will ensure environmental protection, and safe transportation of crude oil," said Guy Jarvis, Enbridge president of liquids pipelines.
But the project has generated intense opposition from Indian tribes, citizen groups and environmental organizations, that fear potential spills into wild rice waters, lakes and streams — including the headwaters of the Mississippi River — and argue it would exacerbate climate change.
Many of those groups, and the state Department of Commerce, have recently highlighted another argument: There's no pressing need for the pipeline, they say, and refineries in the Midwest and Minnesota already receive all the oil they need.
Some analysts have predicted that much of the increased oil shipped on Line 3, if the replacement project is approved, would instead serve refineries in the Gulf Coast region.
Enbridge disputes that claim, saying it doesn't have the pipeline capacity to transport 370,000 barrels of additional oil to the Gulf Coast.
Rather, Enbridge argues in its testimony that the pipeline would help reduce the rationing that currently takes place on its pipeline system, where oil shipper demand currently exceeds the capacity of the lines to transport oil.
"My analysis indicates that this situation will get worse as we move through time, and that the Minnesota refiners will experience more difficulty over time getting the crude oil via Enbridge, unless Line 3 is replaced," said energy consultant Neil Earnest, president of Muse, Stencil & Company, which filed testimony on behalf of Enbridge.
Minnesota is also part of a broader oil market, Enbridge argues, in which refined products from Minnesota's refineries are exported to neighboring states, and products from other states are imported.
Therefore, Enbridge argues, Minnesota should approve the pipeline not only to benefit in-state refineries, but also the regional oil market.
"Minnesota relies on the success of refineries in the state and in the adjacent states," Jarvis said. "So when we say, 'Yes, that regional benefits are part of the reason that Minnesota should approve this,' is because the benefits those refineries are going to receive in adjacent regions are going to flow to Minnesota."
Public hearings on the proposed pipeline continue across northern Minnesota for the rest of the month. The Public Utilities Commission is expected to make a final decision on the line next April.
Dan Kraker • Reporter
email@example.com • @dankraker
Dan Kraker is based in Duluth, Minn.
by Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune, and Al Shaw, ProPublica, October 12, 2017
When Jeremy Boutor moved to a master-planned community in Houston’s booming energy corridor, he saw it as idyllic.
Lakes on Eldridge boasted waterfalls, jogging trails and a clubhouse. It was upscale, secure and close to the office. A bus even picked up his two young sons in front of their house and took them to a nearby international school.
“This neighborhood was a paradise,” said Boutor, who moved to Houston from Paris two years ago after his employer, a French-based energy company, asked him to relocate.
Then, Hurricane Harvey changed everything.
As the downpours began and Boutor studied maps flashing on his TV screen, he realized that his home wasn’t at risk of flooding just because of record rainfall; it was also located inside one of two massive reservoirs that had been built west of Houston decades ago to protect the city.
Boutor ended up with more than a foot of water in his house and was forced to wade out of his home in knee-deep water with his 10-year-old son clinging to his back.
He and his neighbors are now coming to terms with the fact that in big enough rainstorms, their neighborhoods are actually designed to flood. And nobody told them about it.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the two reservoirs known as Addicks and Barker on what was then mostly empty prairie, their chief goal was to protect the center of the city, 20 miles downstream.
The vast basins are dry most of the time, dotted with wooded parks and sports fields, and are contained on their western boundaries by large, earthen dams. During rainstorms, floodwater accumulates behind those dams in areas known as “flood pools” and backs up to the east; how far it goes depends on how big the rainstorm is and where it hits.
That system worked well when the reservoirs were surrounded by prairie and rice fields. But in recent decades, development has encroached from all sides. Today, about 14,000 homes are located inside them. During Harvey, when more floodwater accumulated behind the dams than ever before, 5,138 of those homes flooded.
Subdivisions built within the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs stayed flooded for days as the Army Corps of Engineers gradually released water down Buffalo Bayou.
Grand ParkwayAddicks ReservoirBarker ReservoirBuffalo BayouSubdivisions that contain homes within reservoirsThe Army Corps gradually released Harvey's floodwaters from Addicks and Barker down Buffalo Bayou to the GulfEdge of reservoirEdge of government-owned landBuffalo Bayou watershedTo Downtown Houston →
Some local government officials, like Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, say they’ve warned residents for years about the risks of living in or around the reservoirs during town halls and other public events.
“It is very difficult to make people believe the unbelievable,” Radack said. “No one ever believed the reservoirs would fill.”
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county’s top elected official, said residents must know they live in the reservoirs — the dams, he said, are right there.
“You’ve got a group that bought homes if not in, then on the very edge of reservoirs behind the dams, so that's pretty obvious,” Emmett said.
But it’s clear after Harvey that it wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. None of the more than half a dozen residents interviewed by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica after the floods say they knew they were living inside Addicks or Barker — many of their neighborhoods are several miles away from the dams.
Several local officials — including Houston’s “flood czar” and a neighboring county executive — said they had no idea the neighborhoods had been built inside the flood pools. Several real estate agents said they didn’t realize they were selling homes inside the pools.
“When I started to rent this house, nobody told me,” Boutor said. “Even the insurance company told me that it was not a flooding area.”
But critics say those officials and developers had to know they were putting people and property at risk.
“They had full knowledge. They knew exactly what they were doing,” said Phil Bedient, a professor of engineering at Rice University who studies flooding in the Houston area. “It’s a huge geopolitical mistake. How are they going to fix it?”
The question of who’s to blame has reignited long-simmering tensions between Harris County and the city of Houston.
In recent interviews, Emmett, the county judge, claimed that the city regulates development inside the reservoirs. But the city’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, called that “outrageous” and said the county plays a role, too.
Ultimately, all of them blame Congress. For more than a decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified a number of major needs for Addicks and Barker — including a comprehensive study of how development affects the reservoirs — but hasn’t gotten enough funding to address all the issues.
No matter whose fault it is, Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert — who has a portion of Barker Reservoir in his jurisdiction — said “you can’t take all that developed property off that land. It’s there. Whether it should have been allowed to be built the way it did ... that wasn’t on my watch.”
But now that the homes and streets are there — instead of the prairieland that used to absorb rainwater — scientists, along with Harris County and federal officials, say they are sending more runoff into the reservoirs during heavy storms. That means the reservoirs are getting fuller with each big rain event, threatening not just neighborhoods inside the reservoirs but the integrity of the earthen dams, too. The dams have been considered at risk of failure for years.
As Addicks and Barker reached historic levels during Harvey, the Army Corps sent an unprecedented torrent of floodwater downstream to ease the stress on dams. That caused thousands of additional homes to flood — homes that the reservoirs were initially built to protect.
Ed Taravella, a longtime Houston developer, said he hasn’t seen any credible studies showing that development has sent more runoff into the reservoirs. “Things people say are largely anecdotal,” he said.
Jeremy Boutor at his flood-damaged rental home in one of the neighborhoods flooded in Addicks Reservoir in Houston on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. (Michael Stravato/The Texas Tribune)
But scientists say the impact of replacing prairie with pavement is clear: More water ends up in the reservoirs, rather than being absorbed into the ground. The Army Corps has said as much for years.
“As development continues, we’re going to see more water coming to the reservoirs,” Richard Long, who oversees Addicks and Barker for the agency, told The Texas Tribune and ProPublica last year. “It means we have a harder job to do.”
Long added that the Army Corps doesn’t have the power to control development on land the agency doesn’t own.
“That would require the act of politicians, and they’ve chosen not to do it,” Long said.
For at least six years, the Army Corps has sought $3 million to study the risks that development poses to the reservoirs, but Congress hasn’t approved it — and no local government agreed to sponsor the study until recently. Last week, Texas officials asked Congress to provide $10 billion for a variety of Army Corps projects as part of Harvey recovery efforts.
The Army Corps is now referring media inquiries to the U.S. Department of Justice as it faces mounting lawsuits from residents who live upstream and downstream of the reservoirs. Some also are suing the city and county.
Local officials like Hebert said they never considered the possibility that the reservoirs would hold so much water — until Harvey set national records by dropping up to 50 inches of rain in parts of southeast Texas.
“To be perfectly honest with you, nobody had ever discussed with me the risk of inundation to the degree we had,” he said. “I was vaguely aware that if we got high enough, we could get water in those streets ... It was just something that was incomprehensible.”
He said he still considers it a “unique event” and doesn’t think it’s likely those homes will flood again any time soon.
Before Harvey, the neighborhoods inside the reservoirs had been some of the most desirable places to live in Houston. In Boutor’s subdivision, home prices range from $300,000 to $1.5 million.
But for Boutor, Lakes on Eldridge is not so desirable anymore.
“I don’t want to stay in this community,” he said. “I have to go far away from these reservoirs.”
“Nobody’s in charge”
It’s not clear when local officials became aware of the true risk of building homes within the reservoir basins. Alan Potok, who was assistant director of the Harris County Flood Control District until 2014, said that discussion began after some big floods in the 1990s that pushed water higher than ever before in the reservoirs.
The flooding didn’t reach neighborhoods, but “everybody knew it was going to happen” eventually, Potok said.
Potok pointed out that some of the subdivisions were built in the 1970s, before Harris County had floodplain maps. But many appeared more recently — even after officials recognized that the reservoirs had dodged a bullet during 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison.
Allison dropped almost 40 inches of rain in five days and devastated large areas of Houston — but luckily, district officials wrote in a 2003 report, most of the rain didn’t fall over the reservoirs, or “the damage could have been worse.”
“If the intense rainfall ... had occurred over Barker and Addicks Reservoirs, record flood heights exceeding previous records by five to eight feet would have occurred,” the report said.
The report estimated that as much as 2,000 acres of private land inside the reservoirs — much of it already filled with homes — would have flooded.
But nothing changed. At least 4,000 more homes have been built inside the reservoirs since Allison, according to a Tribune/ProPublica analysis of appraisal data.
Thousands of homes are wedged between government land and the maximum height of Addicks and Barker Reservoirs.
Army Corps of Engineers data shows subdivisions just beyond the edge of federal government land stayed flooded after Harvey’s rains. The maps at left, based on data from Sept. 16 after flood waters largely receded, show damaged subdivisions just beyond government-owned land. At right, those subdivisions on Sept. 3, days after Harvey's floodwaters filled reservoirs nearly to capacity.
Structure damaged in Harvey
Flooding on Sept. 16 Flooding on Sept. 3
2000 ft.Edge of reservoirTwin Lakes SubdivisionGovernment-owned land
2000 ft.Edge of reservoirTwin Lakes SubdivisionGovernment-owned land
2000 ft.Edge of reservoirLakes On Eldridge SubdivisionGovernment-owned land
2000 ft.Edge of reservoirLakes On Eldridge SubdivisionGovernment-owned land
2000 ft.Edge of reservoirKelliwood Greens SubdivisionGovernment-owned land
2000 ft.Edge of reservoirKelliwood Greens SubdivisionGovernment-owned land
By 2015, the flood control district had issued a warning in a new report that concluded: “Addicks Reservoir does not have the capacity to accept additional runoff anticipated from land development activities.”
That report went to both Harris County and the Texas Water Development Board. Still, development hasn’t stopped, although Harris County recently adopted slightly stronger flood mitigation rules in the area.
The finger-pointing over who allowed that development was going on long before Harvey. And there is certainly plenty of blame to go around.
You could start with the Army Corps, which bought only about 24,500 acres back when it built Addicks and Barker in the 1940s — even though the agency knew at the time that about 8,000 more acres could actually flood in a large enough rainstorm.
“There was only cattle, hay crops and a few rice crops out there at the time,” Long, the Army Corps’ reservoir overseer, said in 2016.
So if private property flooded, it wouldn’t be a big deal.
But Houston kept growing, from less than 400,000 people in 1940 to more than 2 million today. And the areas that had been intended for flood control — the reservoir basins and the fringes of Buffalo Bayou downstream — became desirable land for developers.
In an interview last year, Long said the Army Corps has little to no control over development and that its hands have been tied by local politicians and other factors — including the whims of various presidents and congresses with differing views on how much land the government should own and who controls the Army Corps budget.
If the agency could go back and start over, knowing what it knows now, “our battle lines would definitely be different,” he said.
Hebert, the Fort Bend County judge, said he can’t believe the Corps didn’t buy more land back when it built the projects. In the ‘40s, he said the county bought land for the reservoirs for just $12 an acre, or $170 per acre in today’s dollars.
“We can’t cry over spilled milk right now,” Hebert said. “But a lot of folks have tears, and a lot of milk has been spilled.”
Others say the Army Corps doesn’t deserve the brunt of the blame. After all, local officials are the ones who allowed development on all that non-government-owned land.
Those local officials are now engaged in an intense round of deflection and blame games.
“It’s too easy to look back and say ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda,’” said Emmett, the Harris County judge. “We need to find out what everybody’s role was and then make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen going forward.”
Emmett said because the reservoirs are inside the city of Houston’s jurisdiction, the city — not Harris County — is responsible for approving “plats” that clear the way for constructing new neighborhoods.
“That’s an outrageous statement,” said Costello, the city’s “flood czar,” who said that Harris County has to approve the plats for new construction, too.
Should the city have rejected the initial plats and stopped the development before it started?
“I don’t have a response to that question, and I won’t respond to that question,” Costello said.
An engineer who used to the work for the Army Corps’ Galveston District and often discloses that he “made a good living working with developers,” Costello said he wasn’t aware the reservoir “flood pools” were that large until a few weeks ago, when he first saw a copy of an Army Corps operating manual.
All the deflection makes it clear to Bedient, the Rice University engineering professor, that local government policies need to change.
“It should be treated as a regional flood problem. The city doesn’t talk to the county. The county certainly doesn’t know how to deal with the Corps of Engineers ... Nobody’s in charge,” he said.
“Nobody looks at a plat”
Harris County officials may not have realized the true risks of development around and inside the reservoirs until Tropical Storm Allison. But there is evidence that officials in neighboring Fort Bend County were worried a lot earlier.
Back in the 1990s, when development in Barker Reservoir was really ramping up, Larry Dunbar remembers getting a call from Fort Bend County officials.
Dunbar, an engineer and lawyer who has long consulted on water issues, said officials told him they felt uncomfortable allowing so much development in the reservoirs’ flood pool. So he gave them a few options, he said.
“One option was, don’t allow any development there. And it was like, well, politically we probably can’t do that,” Dunbar remembered. “So I said, another option is, make all the developers elevate the homes above the design pool” — the land behind the dams the Army Corps knew it might have to flood. Dunbar said county officials told him “that may not be practical.”
In the end, over significant opposition from developers, the county agreed to put a one-sentence disclosure of possible “controlled inundation” for plots of land in neighborhoods inside Barker. But the sentence was buried in the plat documents, which are not typically shown to homebuyers.
“It’s not like waving a big red flag,” Dunbar conceded, but it was better than nothing.
Dunbar and a colleague recently filed a class action lawsuit against the Army Corps on behalf of a resident who lives inside Barker’s flood pool.
Hebert, the county judge, said he’s not even sure those small notices on the plats are legal. Anything that could cause property values to drop — and a disclosure that a house is inside a reservoir would fit that category — is a possible governmental “taking” of private property without compensating landowners.
“In my opinion, that was the right thing to do,” Hebert said. But “I think we’re subject to being sued by the property owners.”
By all accounts, neither Harris County nor the city of Houston has required such a disclosure, but Radack, the Harris County commissioner, said he thinks “there should be every kind of disclosure known to man.”
Asked why the county hasn’t done so during his three decades in office, Radack scoffed and pointed to what he considers a more meaningful move by the county: It requires anyone building there to elevate homes six inches higher than Fort Bend County’s regulations.
“Nobody looks at a plat,” he said. “Nobody knows where to go to even see a plat.”
Selling the reservoirs as amenities
Officials didn’t simply sit back and let development occur inside the reservoirs. They actually encouraged it through other key actions — including the construction of a third highway loop around the city that would skirt the western edges of both of the emergency lakes.
Talk about building the Grand Parkway began decades ago, back in the 1980s. Some described the Parkway as visionary because it anticipated Houston’s rapid growth. When completed in 2021, the new loop will be large enough to fit the state of Rhode Island inside of it.
But proponents of sustainable development — including the environmental group Sierra Club, which sued to try to stop its construction — said the Parkway would encourage more suburban sprawl and wetland loss and would worsen flooding problems.
Several years after Allison flooded large swaths of Houston, it was time to build a crucial western segment of the giant loop, known as Segment E. During the litigation, the Sierra Club obtained documents that showed the Army Corps and state agencies also were worried about paving over more wetlands that could absorb floodwaters in the Addicks and Barker watersheds.
Development encroaching on the north side of Addicks Reservoir in Houston on Sept 7, 2016. (Michael Stravato/The Texas Tribune)
The documents included emails from Long, the Corps’ reservoir overseer, who wrote that constructing a new segment of the parkway “further compounds issues and problems that already exist with Addicks and Barker.” Even with flood mitigation, he said, “negative impacts will occur to the reservoirs.”
But Long was overruled by another Corps official, who concluded, “No impacts to the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs are expected.” That conclusion wound up in the Army Corps' final permit allowing Segment E to be built.
The court documents show that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental regulatory agency, also expressed concerns about that segment of the highway, writing that “permeable surface [prairie and wetlands] loss will contribute to flooding problems” and that “flooding impacts need to be addressed.” Other state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, raised similar concerns.
The Army Corps received more than 70 requests to hold a public hearing about the project but decided not to. “It is unlikely that new information would be gained by holding a public hearing. Therefore a public hearing will not be held,” the agency wrote in documents made public in the lawsuit.
Houston lawyer Jim Blackburn, who filed the suit on behalf of the Sierra Club, said the documents made clear that the Army Corps “prioritized building the Grand Parkway over fixing the issue with Addicks and Barker development.”
“This is not dumb, bad planning,” he said. “This is very well-thought-out, bad planning.”
Segment E spurred more growth in what’s called the Energy Corridor, a narrow sliver of land along Interstate 10 located smack in the middle of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
For people moving into the area, the reservoirs aren’t billed as a disadvantage or threat. Quite the opposite.
In 2001, the Texas Legislature created The Energy Corridor Management District to oversee and promote growth in the area. It touted the reservoirs as “two of the largest unspoiled natural areas of any metropolitan region in the U.S.” — and the parks and sports fields within them as amenities that support an “active, healthy lifestyle.”
Nowhere on its website does the district mention flood risks.
A spokesman for the district declined an interview request, saying it is “more concerned now with getting life and business back to normal and then pursuing our master plan vision for the District that is guiding our efforts to make a more livable, walkable/bikeable and connected place.”
“The District also does not deal with development regulations, which is the City of Houston's purview,” he added.
No end to development
Local officials say it’s too late to go back and tear up all of the development in the reservoirs. But they’re divided on what should be done now that Harvey has exposed the flood dangers.
Hebert said he’s not sure what can be done to restrict further development in Barker. Because Fort Bend County doesn’t have zoning power, it could try to buy out homes in the reservoir, but that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars; the average value of the 3,000 homes that flooded is $360,000, Hebert said.
And he’s not sure drastic measures are needed. “There were woolly mammoths roaming around the last time that we had rain like this,” he said.
Meanwhile, Harris County has taken some steps. Last year, officials strengthened flood control regulations for developments inside and near Addicks and Barker reservoirs that are within county boundaries.
For the first time ever, some new developments will have to put in detention ponds, which temporarily hold water and then slowly discharge it into nearby streams. They’ll also have to install some form of “retention” that can store the water more permanently. That way, excess water won’t end up in the reservoirs during big storms.
Emmett has also called for more changes to development regulation, though it’s unclear what that would involve. “We need to start over,” he said, “and look at everything.”
Bedient, the Rice University engineering professor, said those regulations will help, but they’re too little, too late. He said the only thing that can really help solve the problem is to build a long-discussed third reservoir upstream of Addicks and Barker to hold excess floodwater.
County and city officials have called loudly for such a project, which would cost at least $300 million, to be funded as part of a federal Harvey recovery package. U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican whose district includes part of the greater Houston region, also is championing the project.
But it’s still not clear exactly where a new reservoir would be located. When Potok was assistant director of the Harris County Flood Control District, he tried to get landowners to the table, but “when push came to shove, quite frankly, everybody had to give up something,” he recalled. The effort stalled and hasn’t been revived.
Emmett said he thinks it's a good idea, but he’s not sure there’s enough undeveloped land left for a new reservoir. “What's in [that land] now?’” he said. “You could have whole subdivisions already built.’”
Meanwhile, there’s no indication that development in the area will slow — even after Harvey.
Houston Realtor-broker Sam Chaudhry, who also serves on the government affairs committee of the Texas Association of Realtors, said he’s decided not to sell homes in neighborhoods inside the reservoirs anymore.
And he said he would never have sold homes there in the first place if he had known about the risks — information he said the city and Army Corps knew but “didn't disclose.”
“I found that out from TV, actually,” he said. “I was like, are you kidding me?”
But he’s probably the exception. For-sale signs proliferate in flood-ravaged neighborhoods inside the reservoirs. Chaudhry said many of them will be snapped up by “an army of investors.”
One five-bedroom home in Lakes on Eldridge, the same subdivision where Jeremy Boutor lives, was listed for $678,000 about two weeks before it flooded during Harvey.
The seller’s agent, Moira Holden, tried to put a positive spin on things when she updated the online listing that decreased the asking price by $10,000. “Unfortunately this stunning home did flood and is being refurbished to the highest spec!” it says. “Fabulous chance to choose your finishes!”
When asked if she would disclose to potential buyers that the home was inside Addicks Reservoir, Holden didn't have a clear answer. “I will obviously disclose whatever we are required to disclose,” she said, pointing out that the home wasn't in a floodplain. “I would hope that the buyer's Realtor would do their due diligence on that.”
Edna Meyer-Nelson, a developer who calls herself a “sixth-generation Houstonian,” said she didn’t know that the shopping center she recently bought was in Addicks Reservoir. She said the development didn’t flood during Harvey but that she’d be willing to submit to stricter building regulations as long as everyone else buys in, too.
“We’re filling up everything with cement, and then we expect [the water] to go somewhere,” she said. “There’s nowhere for the water to go. We need to build more retention ponds.”
But she resisted the idea that development inside the reservoirs needs to stop or slow down.
“We’re going to cover every inch of the land that we can cover,” she said. “I think we need to get more ingenious, but I don’t think we need to stop.”
ProPublica and the Texas Tribune are looking into home buyouts after Hurricane Harvey. Has your home flooded repeatedly, and have you volunteered for a buyout? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Map sources: US Army Corps of Engineers, Texas Water Development Board, FEMA, Harris County Appraisal District, Fort Bend Central Appraisal District, USGS Orthoimagery. Note: Our graphics do not capture peak flooding between August 26 and Sept. 2 because the Army Corps only posted inundation data beginning on Sept. 3.
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