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Worries Over Chemicals In The Water In Texas


You know, when we were reporting in Houston last week in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we explored the area around Cypress Creek, and we had to go by boat because entire subdivisions, cars, houses, everything - completely underwater. I mean, honestly, it felt like we were on a lake. NPR producer Barry Gordemer and I got off the boat, we took off our rubber boots. We emptied them on a sidewalk, and the water that poured out had this strange, greenish color. We weren't sure what that meant, but we realized we had no idea what was in that water, and there are fears now that those floodwaters could pose a long-term threat to both people and the environment. Reporter Brian Mann is on the line from Beaumont, Texas, to talk about this. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what exactly is the risk here, I mean, that there could be some very dangerous chemicals just washing around in these floodwaters?

MANN: Yeah. You have to remember that this is one of the most industrialized parts of the United States. As I'd drive around, huge chemical plants, refineries everywhere, and a lot of them still inundated with water. And the Coast Guard and other agencies are just now starting to get a handle on what Harvey might have done to those sites, what might have ruptured, what pipes might be leaking, chemicals or other agents that have gotten loose. Health officials also say, you know, sewer and septic systems have certainly been effected. And Houston's health department just says point blank these flood waters are definitely contaminated. They're warning people, you know, to avoid them.

GREENE: And aren't there a lot of Superfund sites in this area? And Superfund, I mean, that classification itself means that it is a contaminated, hazardous place.

MANN: Yeah, that's right. At least 13 Superfund sites were hit directly by Harvey so there's the potential for a lot of gunk floating around. Some of these sites do go back decades. Soil in some areas has already been trucked out or the area's been capped with concrete. So they might be fine. Others are still being cleaned up, though, and there are real concerns that it could sort of wash those chemicals around. We know that the EPA has tested two of these sites already and said they do look OK, but because water levels are still so high, it's hard for scientists and government agencies to get a clear picture. In fact, the EPA issued a statement saying they still can't get to 11 of those Superfund sites. It's still just too dangerous.

GREENE: Well, and then you have the reality that a lot of people can't get back to their homes because it's too dangerous, but that is beginning to happen. People are arriving to see exactly what they had lost. And I gather they're just getting there, and it's devastating, right? I mean, there's just rotting garbage.

MANN: Yeah. This part's almost as scary as the chemicals. I spent part of yesterday in one neighborhood of Port Arthur, Texas, and it was horrible. Let me give you a sense for what I found.

Knock, knock. Is anybody home?

So I found Demetrio Galvan in shorts and a bare chest. He was covered with sweat as he hauled mattresses, electronics, just everything out of his house. I asked him what he'd lost, and his friend, Salvador Gonzalez, volunteered to translate.

DEMETRIO GALVAN: (Through translator) We lost everything.

MANN: Can you afford to replace everything, or, what happens now?

GALVAN: (Through translator) He said he don't have the money. He can't afford to pay nothing.

MANN: They took me through the house, and you could see how nice it was, how well-kept. And now it was ruined.

Wow, the smell - you can really smell that it was wet.

So then, David, I walked between houses, and basically, this neighborhood, which is a beautiful, middle-class neighborhood - there were piles of garbage, mountains of garbage everywhere. And I say garbage, but, you know, before Harvey, this was people's lives, their stuff, their furniture. I saw exercise equipment, carpet, clothing. A few doors down, Duy Nguyen was mopping out a hallway, and there was this stench in his house, too. And, honestly, it was even worse. He told me it was because of all the rotting shrimp.

DUY NGUYEN: The garage was the worst part. We had all the seafood out there, and it just, you know, flipped everything over. It was like a tornado inside.

MANN: The freezers had spilled, and the fish and shrimp began to rot. That was the first thing they had to clean.

NGUYEN: It was terrible. The smell was unbearable. We had to go in five minutes at a time and just take a break.

MANN: Nguyen's home, too, was just ringed by trash. It looked like a barricade.

NGUYEN: I didn't have enough time to save anything, put anything up high. And so I pretty much lost the whole house, and our whole yard is covered with our belongings. Now we can't salvage nothing.

GREENE: Reporter Brian Mann bringing us those voices from Texas. He's still on the line with us. And Brian, I guess one last question. What - what is the next step now? What happens to all of that stuff that people are finding?

MANN: Yeah. There are landfills-worth of trash that have to be moved out of these neighborhoods. Government agencies in Texas, also in parts of Louisiana, starting to mobilize, but it's a huge job, David. It's going to take time. Meanwhile, there are real health risks - chemicals, mold, the rot. I saw a lot of people wearing face masks and rubber gloves yesterday, but most people weren't. They were just working with mops and rags, getting back to work.

GREENE: Talking to reporter Brian Mann who's in Beaumont, Texas, part of our team covering the aftermath of that big storm, Harvey. It's going to be a long road to recovery. Brian, thanks for the time this morning.

MANN: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.