How do we treat environmental compliance in an area hit by an emergency? Do we suspend environmental rules and procedures as people and land recover? Or do we treat it as nothing has happened? The recent tragedies of Harvey and Irma put this question in perspective.
As Hurricane Harvey left destruction throughout southeast Texas, it was natural to allow residents to return to their homes as soon as it became passable to make their way back. However, was it safe to let people return so quickly?
The USEPA reported that over a week after Harvey hit Texas, over 800 wastewater treatment plants were still not fully operational and there were releases of untreated wastewater from sanitary sewers. 13 Superfund sites in the hardest hit areas were not even visited yet by the USEPA, although it was likely that the flood waters carried some toxic material with them. Over 100,000 people had no access to safe drinking water weeks after Harvey hit. Was it safe to allow people to return without a basic assessment of these issues? Did the government put the residents at further risk of health impacts by allowing a premature return? Remember how in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, the affected area was declared “safe”, and many rescue workers came, only to face debilitating health effects in the future because the air still had high concentrations of ash and other toxic compounds.
In addition, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Texas Governor Greg Abbott suspended many environmental rules, such as waiving the requirement to operate pollution control equipment and regulating operations at different types of facilities on the theory that these efforts could hamper the recovery from the hurricane. These suspensions include air emission and effluent restrictions, as well as performing certain operations, maintenance, testing, and reporting and spill reporting and response requirements of hazardous waste, of which the heavy rains and winds carried outside of containment areas into areas where people may be exposed. Texas also issued guidance allowing local authorities to perform whatever recovery activities it believes will be most effective, even if there are environmental implications. It should be noted that this applies to state rules only, and does not apply to federal rules.
The scope of the suspension is only applicable where normal operations are unsafe due to the conditions and compliance would prevent or hinder actions needed to recover in coping with this disaster. The suspension is only valid in the areas hit by Harvey and only for the time that the area is considered a disaster area.
However, was this the proper decision? Might suspending rules and procedures increase the environmental impact and the risk of exposure to pollutants in the air, water, and solid areas?
Further study will determine whether these were risky decisions or prudent given the circumstances. Lessons will be learned.
CCES can help your firm assess the technical aspects of compliance with and risk from environmental regulations in your state and locality. Contact us today at 914-584-6720 or at karell@CCESworld.com.