Toxic waste sites near Houston flooded by Harvey, EPA not on scene

Los Angeles Times

Toxic waste sites near Houston flooded by Harvey, EPA not on scene the Highlands Acid Pit, a “No Trespassing” sign on the barbed-wire fence encircling the 3.3-acre Superfund site barely peeked above the churning water from the nearby San Jacinto River on Aug. 31, 2017.  (Jason Dearen / AP)

Jason Dearen and Michael Biesecker, Associated Press

September 2, 2017  Highlands, Texas

As Dwight Chandler sipped beer and swept out the thick muck caked inside his devastated home, he worried whether Harvey’s floodwaters had also washed in pollution from the old acid pit just a couple blocks away.

Long a center of the nation’s petrochemical industry, the Houston metro area has more than a dozen Superfund sites, designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as being among America’s most intensely contaminated places. Many are now flooded, with the risk that waters were stirring dangerous sediment.

The Highlands Acid Pit site near Chandler’s home was filled in the 1950s with toxic sludge and sulfuric acid from oil and gas operations. Though 22,000 cubic yards of hazardous waste and soil were excavated from the acid pits in the 1980s, the site is still considered a potential threat to groundwater, and the EPA maintains monitoring wells there.

When he was growing up in Highlands, Chandler, now 62, said he and his friends used to swim in the by-then abandoned pit.

“My daddy talks about having bird dogs down there to run and the acid would eat the pads off their feet,” he recounted on Thursday. “We didn’t know any better.”

The Associated Press surveyed seven Superfund sites in and around Houston during the flooding. All had been inundated with water, in some cases many feet deep.

On Saturday, hours after the AP published its first report, the EPA said it had reviewed aerial imagery confirming that 13 of the 41 Superfund sites in Texas were flooded by Harvey and were “experiencing possible damage” due to the storm.

The statement confirmed the AP’s reporting that the EPA had not yet been able to physically visit the Houston-area sites, saying the sites had “not been accessible by response personnel.” EPA staff had checked on two Superfund sites in Corpus Christi on Thursday and found no significant damage.

The Houston metro area has more than a dozen Superfund sites. Many are now flooded, with the risk that waters were stirring dangerous chemicals.

AP journalists used a boat to document the condition of one flooded Houston-area Superfund site, but accessed others with a vehicle or on foot. The EPA did not respond to questions about why its personnel had not yet been able to do so.

“Teams are in place to investigate possible damage to these sites as soon flood waters recede, and personnel are able to safely access the sites,” the EPA statement said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, speaking with reporters at a news conference on Saturday after the AP report was published, said he wants the EPA “in town to address the situation.”

Turner said he didn’t know about the potential environmental concerns soon enough to discuss them with President Donald Trump.

“Now we’re turning out attention to that,” he said. “It is always a concern. The environment is very concerning, and we’ll get right on top of it.”

At the Highlands Acid Pit on Thursday, the Keep Out sign on the barbed-wire fence encircling the 3.3-acre site barely peeked above the churning water from the nearby San Jacinto River.

A fishing bobber was caught in the chain link, and the air smelled bitter. A rusted incinerator sat just behind the fence, poking out of the murky soup.

Across the road at what appeared to be a more recently operational plant, a pair of tall white tanks had tipped over into a heap of twisted steel. It was not immediately clear what, if anything, might have been inside them when the storm hit.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has called cleaning up Superfund sites a top priority, even as he has taken steps to roll back or delay rules aimed at preventing air and water pollution. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget seeks to cut money for the Superfund program by 30 percent, though congressional Republicans are likely to approve a less severe reduction.

Like Trump, Pruitt has expressed skepticism about the predictions of climate scientists that warmer air and seas will produce stronger, more drenching storms.

Under the Obama administration, the EPA conducted a nationwide assessment of the increased threat to Superfund sites posed by climate change, including rising sea levels and stronger hurricanes. Of the more than 1,600 sites reviewed as part of the 2012 study, 521 were determined to be in 1-in-100 year and 1-in-500 year flood zones. Nearly 50 sites in coastal areas could also be vulnerable to rising sea levels.

The threats to human health and wildlife from rising waters that inundate Superfund sites vary widely depending on the specific contaminants and the concentrations involved. The EPA report specifically noted the risk that floodwaters might carry away and spread toxic materials over a wider area. Chandler walks through his flood-damaged home in Highlands, Texas, on Aug. 31, 2017. Chandler, 62, said he worried whether Harvey’s floodwaters had washed in pollution from the old acid pits just a couple blocks from his house that are designated as an EPA Superfund site. (Jason Dearen / AP)

The report listed two dozen Superfund sites determined to be especially vulnerable to flooding and sea-level rise. The only one in Texas, the Bailey Waste Disposal site south of Beaumont, is on a marshy island along the Neches River. The National Weather Service said the Neches was expected to crest on Saturday at more than 21 feet above flood stage — 8 feet higher than the prior record.

In Crosby, across the San Jacinto River from Houston, a small working-class neighborhood sits between two Superfund sites, French LTD and the Sikes Disposal Pits.

The area was wrecked by Harvey’s floods. Only a single house from among the roughly dozen lining Hickory Lane was still standing.

After the water receded on Friday, a sinkhole the size of a swimming pool had opened up and swallowed two cars. The acrid smell of creosote filled the air.

Rafael Casas’ family had owned a house there for two decades, adjacent to the French LTD site. He said he was never told about the pollution risk until it came up in an informal conversation with a police officer who grew up nearby. Most of the homes had groundwater wells, but Casas said his family had switched to bottled water.

“You never know what happens with the pollution under the ground,” said Casas, 32. “It filters into the water system.”

The water had receded by Saturday at Brio Refining Inc. and Dixie Oil Processors, a pair of neighboring Superfund sites about 20 miles southeast of downtown Houston in Friendswood. The road was coated in a layer of silt. Mud Gully Stream, which bisects the two sites, was full and flowing with muddy water.

Both sites were capped with a liner and soil as part of EPA-supervised cleanup efforts aimed at preventing the contamination from spreading off the low-lying sites during floods. Parts of the Brio site were elevated by 8 feet. Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 photo shows the heavily polluted Patrick Bayou in the Houston Ship Channel that was flooded during Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston. The bayou, which sits next to a chemical plant in an intensely industrial area of Houston, is polluted with pesticides, hydrocarbons, metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). (Jason Dearen / AP)

John Danna, the manager hired by the companies to oversee the sites, said in a phone interview that he went there after the storm and saw no signs of erosion. He said he didn’t know how high the flooding got in Harvey’s wake and that no testing of the water still draining from the area had been conducted. EPA staff are expected to visit in the next week, he said.

A security guard at the Patrick Bayou Superfund site, just off the Houston Ship Channel in Deer Park, said Saturday that flooding came hundreds of feet inland during the storm. The water has since receded back into the bayou, where past testing has shown the sediments contain pesticides, toxic heavy metals and PCBs. The site, surrounded by active petrochemical facilities, is still awaiting a final plan for cleanup.

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site was completely covered with floodwaters when an AP reporter saw it Thursday. According to its website, the EPA was set to make a final decision this year about a proposed $97 million cleanup effort to remove toxic waste from a paper mill that operated there in the 1960s.

The flow from the raging river washing over the toxic site was so intense it damaged an adjacent section of the Interstate 10 bridge, which has been closed to traffic due to concerns it might collapse.

There was no way to immediately assess how much contaminated soil from the site might have been washed away. According to an EPA survey from last year, soil from the former waste pits contains dioxins and other long-lasting toxins linked to birth defects and cancer.

The EPA said Saturday the San Jacinto Waste Pits site is covered by a temporary “armored cap,” a fabric covering anchored with rocks designed to prevent contaminated sediment from migrating down river.

McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., one of the companies responsible for the site, said in a statement Saturday that its contractors reported that “visible portions of the cap indicated the waste beneath remained in place following the storm.” Ken Haldin, a public relations consultant representing the company, said he did not know how much of the 34-acre site was above water at the time of the inspection.

According to an EPA review last year, the cap has required extensive repairs on at least six occasions since it was installed in 2011, with large sections becoming displaced or going missing.

The EPA said its personnel planned to go to the site by boat on Monday.

Kara Cook-Schultz, who studies Superfund sites for the advocacy group TexPIRG, said environmentalists have warned for years about the potential for flooding to inundate Texas Superfund sites, particularly the San Jacinto Waste Pits.

“If floodwaters have spread the chemicals in the waste pits, then dangerous chemicals like dioxin could be spread around the wider Houston area,” Cook-Schultz said. “Superfund sites are known to be the most dangerous places in the country, and they should have been properly protected against flooding.”

Associated Press writer Jay Reeves contributed to this report. Biesecker reported from Washington.

Trump’s EPA lashes out at journalists who exposed Houston toxic risk – then deletes statement


Trump’s EPA lashes out at journalists who exposed Houston toxic risk – then deletes statement

David Ferguson     September 3, 2017 Photo: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

A statement from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — now headed by Republican climate denialist Scott Pruitt — attacked the two Associated Press journalists who revealed on Saturday that multiple highly toxic “Superfund” sites had not been assessed for risks in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. reported on Sunday that the EPA issued “an extraordinary statement” attacking AP reporters Jason Dearen and Michael Biesecker — whose on-the-ground reporting broke the story on Saturday — and smearing their integrity as journalists.

However, by 7:30 p.m. EDT on Sunday, the statement had been scrubbed from the EPA website.

Gizmodo said the now-missing statement called the AP report “misleading” and said, “Here’s the truth: through aerial imaging, EPA has already conducted initial assessments at 41 Superfund sites—28 of those sites show no damage, and 13 have experienced flooding.”

Aerial imaging, however, cannot measure the level of poisons in the air and water around the sites or detect how far they have spread.

“Administrator Pruitt already visited Southeast Texas and is in constant contact with local, state and county officials,” the statement said, but failed to mention whether Pruitt had been to any of the sites or ordered inspections.

The statement went on to attack Biesecker’s credibility.

“Unfortunately, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story. Earlier this summer, he made-up a meeting that Administrator Pruitt had, and then deliberately discarded information that refuted his inaccurate story — ultimately prompting a nation-wide correction. Additionally, the Oklahoman took him to task for sensationalized reporting,” the EPA said.

Gizmodo issued a correction to the agency’s “correction,” however, writing, “Biesecker did not make up the story, which is that Pruitt met with DOW CEO Andrew Liveris before deciding not to ban Dow’s chlorpyrifos pesticide, but instead issued a correction regarding the length of said meeting.”

EPA Associate Administrator Liz Bowman accused the AP of “once again” attempting to “mislead Americans” by “cherry-picking facts.” She called Saturday’s report “yellow journalism.”

Gizmodo said, “Since the EPA did not actually contest any of the facts in the AP article, this looks an awful lot like petty retaliation against journalists for having the temerity to report on things like the EPA’s response to an environmental catastrophe—or any number of other things, like Pruitt’s extremely sketchy ties to the climate change denial movement, war on environmental science, or plans to eliminate huge numbers of EPA staff.”

The statement — which contained links to white nationalist website as references —lambasted Dearen and Biesecker as having authored their report from “the comfort of Washington,” when in fact, both reporters traveled to the sites in question and reported from Houston throughout the storm.

“As someone who was there,” Dearen wrote on Twitter, “I can confirm it was hot, and smelly.”

Harvey’s floodwaters mix a foul brew of sewage, chemicals

Associated Press

Harvey’s floodwaters mix a foul brew of sewage, chemicals

John Flesher, AP Environmental Writer, Associated Press   Sept 4, 2017

FILE – In this Aug. 31, 2017 file photo, Alejandra Castillo takes a break from carrying water-soaked items out of her family’s home after flood waters receded in Houston. Experts say Harvey’s filthy floodwaters pose significant dangers to human safety and the environment that will remain even after levels drop far enough that southeastern Texas residents no longer fear for their lives. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Harvey’s filthy floodwaters pose significant dangers to human safety and the environment even after water levels drop far enough that Southeast Texas residents no longer fear for their lives, according to experts.

Houston already was notorious for sewer overflows following rainstorms. Now the system, with 40 wastewater treatment plants across the far-flung metropolis, faces an unprecedented challenge.

State officials said several dozen sewer overflows had been reported in areas affected by the hurricane, including Corpus Christi. Private septic systems in rural areas could fail as well.

Also stirred into the noxious brew are spilled fuel, runoff from waste sites, lawn pesticides and pollutants from the region’s many petroleum refineries and chemical plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported Sunday that of the 2,300 water systems contacted by federal and state regulators, 1,514 were fully operational. More than 160 systems issued notices advising people to boil water before drinking it, and 50 were shut down.

The public works department in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, said its water was safe. The system has not experienced the kind of pressure drop that makes it easier for contaminants to slip into the system and is usually the reason for a boil-water order, spokesman Gary Norman said.

In a statement Thursday, federal and state environmental officials said their primary concerns were the availability of healthy drinking water and “ensuring wastewater systems are being monitored, tested for safety and managed appropriately.”

About 85 percent of Houston’s drinking water is drawn from surface sources — rivers and reservoirs, said Robin Autenrieth, head of Texas A&M University’s civil engineering department. The rest comes from the city’s 107 groundwater wells.

“I would be concerned about what’s in the water that people will be drinking,” she said.

The city met federal and state drinking water standards as well as requirements for monitoring and reporting, said Andrew Keese, spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Keeping it that way will require stepped-up chemical treatments because of the flooding, Norman said.

It’s prudent to pump more chlorine and other disinfectants into drinking water systems in emergencies like this, to prevent outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and dysentery, said David Andrews, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. But doing so poses its own risks, he said.

There’s often more organic matter — sewage, plants, farm runoff — in reservoirs or other freshwater sources during heavy rains. When chlorine reacts with those substances, it forms chemicals called trihalomethanes, which can boost the risk of cancer and miscarriages, Andrews said.

“Right now it’s a tough time to deal with that, when you’re just trying to clean the water up and make sure it’s not passing illnesses through the system,” he said. “But we should do better at keeping contamination out of source water in the first place.”

Federal and state officials said about two-thirds of approximately 2,400 wastewater treatment plants in counties affected by Harvey were fully operational. They said they were monitoring facilities with reported spills and would send teams to help operators restart systems.

Sewage plants are particularly vulnerable during severe storms because they are located near waterways into which they can discharge treated water, said Autenrieth of Texas A&M. When they are flooded, raw or partially treated sewage can spill from pipes, open-air basins and tanks.

A report by the nonprofit research group Climate Central said more than 10 billion gallons of sewage was released along the East Coast during Superstorm Sandy.

The Houston Chronicle reported last year that Houston averages more than 800 sewage overflows a year and is negotiating an agreement with the EPA that would require system improvements.

Norman said Houston didn’t have a running tally of overflows during Harvey.

“Anytime you have wet weather of this magnitude, there’s going to be a certain amount of sanitary sewage that escapes the system,” he said. “That’s one reason why we advise people to stay out of floodwaters.”

A Texas A&M analysis of floodwater samples from the Houston area revealed levels of E. coli — bacteria that signal the presence of fecal matter — 125 times higher than is safe for swimming. Even wading through such tainted water could cause infections and sickness, said Terry Gentry, an associate professor and specialist in detecting tiny disease-producing organisms.

“Precautions should be taken by anyone involved in cleanup activities or any others who may be exposed to floodwaters,” said a statement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state environmental quality commission.

They said they were developing a plan to sample residential wells.

Hazards will remain as waters gradually recede. Puddles, tires and other spots for standing water will attract mosquitoes, which can spread viruses such as West Nile and Zika, Autenrieth said.

Much of the dirty water will flow through rivers, creeks and bayous into Galveston Bay, renowned for its oyster reefs, abundant wildlife and seagrass meadows. Officials will need to monitor shellfish for signs of bacterial contamination, said Doug Rader, chief ocean scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

The waters also may be rich with nitrogen and phosphorus, which feed algae blooms. When algae die and rot, oxygen gets sucked from the water, creating “dead zones” where large numbers of fish can suffocate.

“You have a potential for localized dead zones in Galveston Bay for months or maybe even longer,” Rader said.

The bay opens into the Gulf of Mexico, where a gigantic dead zone forms in summer, powered by nutrients from the Mississippi River. This year’s was the largest on record, said oceanographer Nancy Rabalais of Louisiana State University.

Ironically, Hurricane Harvey may have done the environment at least one favor by churning the Gulf’s waters and sending an influx of oxygen from the surface to the depths. “A temporary silver lining,” Rabalais said.

But that also happened after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, she added. “And within a week, the low-oxygen area had redeveloped.”

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Santa Fe Aiming for 100% Renewable Energy by 2025


Santa Fe Aiming for 100% Renewable Energy by 2025

Lorraine Chow   September 1, 2017, the largest electricity provider in New Mexico, has more than 1 million solar panels at 15 different solar sites to provide clean energy for the state.

New Mexico’s capital has joined the growing movement of U.S. cities committing to 100 percent renewable energy.

On Wednesday, Santa Fe’s City Council unanimously adopted Mayor Javier Gonzales’ resolution directing City Manager Brian Snyde to develop a feasibility study on how the city can transition to renewables by 2025. Snyde will report the findings in 90 days.

“The City of Santa Fe has historically been a leader in the fight against global warming and has a responsibility to continue to set a positive example for other cities, states and countries to follow,” the resolution states.

“Such a transition to utilizing 100 percent renewable energy will promote employment opportunities and economic growth in our community, facilitate local control and ownership of the city’s energy options, and bring tangible benefits of using renewable energy to the community as a whole,” it adds.

Gonzales celebrated the city’s ambitious clean energy goal with a tweet saying there is “work to do, but here we go!”

The New Mexican reported that a quarter of the city’s energy already comes from renewable sources, mostly from solar.

An Undocumented Journey Through Harvey


An Undocumented Journey Through Harvey

When her trailer flooded, Maria and her children escaped on a makeshift raft. But with the risk of deportation, she didn’t know where to turn. 

By Lorena O’Neil     August 31, 2017

The water seeped in under the door of Maria’s mobile home in Houston Sunday night as she tapped out the numbers 9-1-1. No answer. “Just take the children and leave me,” her friend José urged in Spanish. Jose is paralyzed from the waist-down. Maria and her late husband took him in to live with them and their five children following his car accident six years ago. The water kept coming into the trailer. Now it crept towards Jose’s electric wheelchair.

“No—if we leave, we all leave together,” Maria told Jose. She was scared. She had called 911 three hours earlier and had been instructed to calm down and wait. So Maria waited, and waited, and now the water was coming in faster, and now there was more of it. Her children were crying.

As Maria began to panic, her friend’s husband, whom she had called earlier, showed up at her front door with his son and his two teenage friends. He pointed to the inflatable kiddie pool her family used during the hot Houston summer, and suggested they use it as a raft to push José through the floodwater. With José, her 9-year-old twin boys, and her 10-year-old daughter situated in the green and blue floating pool, the 5-foot-tall Maria pushed her family through frigid water that reached her chest. Maria’s other two daughters, just 11- and 12-years-old, walked alongside their mother in the dark. She wondered what would happen next. Both Maria and Jose are undocumented immigrants, and she feared being asked for papers once they reached a shelter.

Maria’s concern about potentially being detained by “la migra”—immigration officials—was one shared by many undocumented immigrants as Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston and other parts of southern Texas. Pew estimates that the Houston metropolitan area is home to roughly 575,000 undocumented immigrants, the third largest population in the United States behind Los Angeles and New York. Even before the storm, the undocumented community was on high alert, due to Senate Bill 4, an anti-immigrant measure that allows local police officers to ask about a person’s citizenship status and had been scheduled to go into effect Friday. (It has since been temporarily halted.) is home to about 575,000 undocumented immigrants, the third largest population in the United States. Getty

The ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection put out a joint statement over the weekend in light of the storm saying they wouldn’t target undocumented immigrants at evacuation sites, shelters, or food banks. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner went as far as saying he would personally defend any undocumented immigrants who faced deportation as a result of seeking help in the storm. These reassurances never reached Maria, and she almost didn’t go to a shelter due to her fear. (Esquire is withholding the last names of undocumented immigrants profiled in this article.)

Maria had walked for 75 minutes through the water towards an elementary school on higher ground. She brought a change of clothes and blankets with her from home that were now soaked. The kiddie pool was becoming so deflated it was tough to push. As her legs began to fatigue from wading through the water, a black truck splashed by and three men jumped out to assist Maria, Jose, and the rest of the group. The Good Samaritans drove the family to a nearby school and Maria contemplated where to go next. She tried to call acquaintances, but claims it was tough to find someone who would agree to house them once she mentioned José was paraplegic. The men who had been in the black truck offered to take them to Gallery Furniture, a Houston furniture store that had opened its doors as a shelter for hurricane evacuees.

“I was so scared,” she says in Spanish, the language in which our interview was conducted. “I was scared I would go there and they would ask me for my papers.”

Maria left Mexico when she was 20-years-old and has been living in Texas for the past 17 years. Her husband passed away from a stroke a year ago, and now she is terrified of being deported and leaving her five American-born children without parents. But the men in the truck reassured Maria and José nobody would ask for their documentation at Gallery Furniture. Desperate for food, water, and a place to sleep, Maria went to the furniture store, where the family was greeted with hot dogs, coffee, and a temporary wheelchair for José. Still, she was anxious. have been dozens of Hurricane Harvey-related deaths since it made landfall in Texas over the weekend. Getty

“I didn’t want to stay there,” she says. At 4 a.m., two police officers walked in, and her anxiety grew. The pair spoke with some of the volunteers at the shelter and walked into the kitchen. Nobody asked for papers.

Maria, Jose, and the children slept at the furniture store for one night before moving to a family member’s house, where they are currently living. Maria has since returned to her mobile home to assess the situation. The water has damaged two of her four bedrooms, plus a bathroom. Her two trucks are flooded, as well, one of which she uses to pull the taco food cart that she depends on for her livelihood. Maria, like approximately 80 percent of Harvey’s worst flood victims, does not have flood insurance.

“I know [undocumented] people have been afraid before the hurricane, of just dropping their kids at school or going to work,” says Pancho Arguelles, executive director at Living Hope Wheelchair Association, a non-profit organization that assists people like José with spinal cord injuries who don’t have access to healthcare.’s Gallery Furniture store took in families like Maria’s Sunday night. Getty

He worries about the new anti-immigrant bill, and says he thinks undocumented people will mistakenly think it means every police officer is essentially becoming an immigration officer. The deterioration of trust between police officers and the community they serve is of serious concern to police chiefs in Texas, many of whom have spoken out against Senate Bill 4 both before and after it was signed into law by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The legislation—nicknamed the “anti-sanctuary cities” law—would ban police chiefs, sheriffs, and other law-enforcement officials from preventing an officer from questioning a person about his or her immigration status. Jail officials would also be forced to honor all ICE requests to hold inmates for possible deportation. On Wednesday, a federal district judge temporarily blocked the bill from taking effect while a lawsuit against it continues. Houston is one of the cities involved in the lawsuit looking to strike down the law.

“I know [undocumented] people have been afraid before the hurricane, of just dropping their kids at school or going to work.”

Still, Maria feels uncertain about her future in the U.S. “I’m worried,” she says. Speaking on behalf of the undocumented community in Houston she says, “We have a lot of needs right now.” Maria hopes to move back into her damaged home and get her business back up and running as soon as she can.

“I will work hard and fight like always for my children,” she says. “I’m their only support.”

Houston refineries and plants leak thousands of tons of pollutants

The Guardian

Houston refineries and plants leak thousands of tons of pollutants

Oliver Milman, Houston, Texas, The Guardian   September 2, 2017

Communities face surging toxic fumes and possible water contamination, as refineries and plants report more than 2,700 tons of extra pollution’s petrochemical industry has leaked more than 2,700 tons of extra air pollution in connection with Hurricane Harvey. Photograph: David J. Phillip/AP

Hurricane Harvey has resulted in Houston’s petrochemical industry leaking thousands of tons of pollutants, with communities living near plants damaged by the storm exposed to soaring levels of toxic fumes and potential water contamination.

Refineries and chemical plants have reported more than 2,700 tons, or 5.4m pounds, of extra air pollution due to direct damage from the hurricane as well as the preventive shutting down of facilities, which causes a spike in released toxins.

On Friday, ozone levels in south-west Houston were nearly three times higher than the national standard, triggering one of Texas’s worst recent smog. Scientists warned that people outside cleaning up in the aftermath of Harvey were vulnerable to the poor air, particularly the elderly, children and those with asthma.

According to an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity, a cocktail of nearly 1m pounds of particularly harmful substances such as benzene, hexane, sulfur dioxide, butadiene and xylene have been emitted by more than 60 petroleum industry plants operated by ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and other businesses since the hurricane.

Houston has not met national air quality standards since the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the sudden surge in pollution has caused deep concern among public health advocates.

“It’s a really serious public health crisis from the pollution and other impacts people are facing,” said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.

“Communities in close proximity to these facilities will get the worst of it, as they get the worst of it on a daily basis. There’s also the acute danger of one of these facilities exploding in neighborhoods where storage tanks are adjacent to people’s back yards. It’s a very real threat and it’s a very precarious situation.”

The released chemicals are linked, through prolonged exposure, to an array of health problems including heightened cancer risk, gastrointestinal ailments, nausea and muscle weakness. Residents living near the sprawling industrial facilities that dominate Houston’s ship channel said they have experienced pungent smells and respiratory issues in the wake of the hurricane.

“It feels like someone has a hand on the crest of your noses and is pushing down on your nose and eyes,” said Bryan Parras, who lives in the East End area of Houston. “You start to get headaches, your eyes start itching, your throat gets scratchy. I noticed it going outside for just a second. And then I realized that the air conditioning was sucking it into the house.”

Parras has worked for the past decade to highlight the pollution issues faced the overwhelmingly Latino and black communities living directly next to Houston’s petrochemical industry. While it is difficult to directly link air pollution in a particular area to a person’s illness, people along the ship channel have reported elevated levels of leukemia, asthma and other ailments.

“I grew up here and I remember being sick all the time,” Parras said. “I’m still pretty fucked up because of where I grew up and live. This hurricane has been devastating for these communities and it’s still playing out because we don’t know the full extent of it yet.

“The Latino community here is full of good people. They do the dirtiest jobs and they don’t ask for much and yet they are over-policed, criminalized and targeted. These people have very little political power and the city knows it. The real disaster is that they are poisoning these communities slowly, 24-7.”

Daniel Cohan, an air pollution expert at Rice University, said the emissions could be even greater than what the companies are reporting to regulators, given the difficulties in ascertaining exactly what has been leaked. Several air quality monitors were also rendered inoperable by the hurricane.

“The emissions could be many times higher,” he said. “A lot of the risks for carcinogens and neurotoxins come following exposure for a long time but the immediate concern is that people in the neighborhoods around the plants, a lot of low-income Hispanic communities, will suffer itchy eyes and throat complaints. The air will be unpleasant to breathe.

“It’s concerning how state policies allow enormous amounts of pollution during shut down and start up periods. I hope the next few days are the worst of it.”

The most spectacular industrial damage so far has taken place at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, where a number of explosions have been reported.

Many other petrochemical facilities have reported lesser but significant damage to their roofs and holding tanks from Harvey, the heaviest rain event in recorded US history. ExxonMobil had to shut down two facilities, with one damaged plant in Baytown releasing more than 12,500lbs of chemicals including benzene and xylene.

Fourteen plants, operated by firms including Shell and Dow Chemical, have also reported wastewater overflows following the hurricane. It’s not yet clear what volume of pollutants has been released, although some scientists are concerned the huge volume of water washing through Houston will carry high levels of toxins.

Along with its enormous petrochemical industry, Harris county, in which Houston sits, has more than a dozen super-fund sites – federally designated toxic areas in need of cleaning up – that may also spread contamination.

The Associated Press reported on Saturday that it had visited five Houston-area super-fund sites and all had been inundated with water.

The US Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have said they have about 200 staff members working to monitor wastewater issues and safeguard drinking water.

“Floodwaters may contain many hazards, including bacteria and other disease agents,” the agencies warned in a joint statement. “Precautions should be taken by anyone involved in cleanup activities or any others who may be exposed to floodwaters.

“These precautions include heeding all warnings from local and state authorities regarding boil-water notices, swimming advisories, or other safety advisories.”

Many residents have been alarmed by the toxic impacts of the hurricane but are skeptical that their more chronic pollution problems will be addressed once the floodwaters from Harvey have receded.

Jessica Hultze, a retired woman who lives in Houston’s second ward district, a largely Latino area, said she had noticed a strong smell of gasoline that made her feel uncomfortable.

“This has been bad but it’s not going to get better, it’ll only get worse,” she said. “We all talk about how close we are to the refineries but for us there is no hope, we will die with this poisonous air. There are so many people around here with tubes coming out of their noses.

“I’ve been around for a few years and no one has listened to us. We are just the little people.”

NAFTA: How ‘ghost’ unions exploit workers in Mexico

Al Jazeera

NAFTA: How ‘ghost’ unions exploit workers in Mexico

Labor experts hope NAFTA talks will spur action against unions profiting off workers and secure a better deal for them.

by John Holman       September 1, 2017

Mexico City, Mexico – US President Donald Trump is not known to be a defender of the underpaid, under-protected Mexican labor force, but his administration is making noises about the low salaries and lax regulations that workers in Mexico have to put up with.

There is a reason for that. The Trump administration believes low Mexican wages make for unfair competition for their own workforce and lure in companies that instead might have set up in the US. With the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the negotiating table again after 23 years, the Trump administration, when they are not threatening to pull out of the trade deal, is looking to even up the playing field. The focus on salaries is likely to continue into the second round of re-negotiations taking place in Mexico itself from September 1st to 5th.

But while the US administration’s concerns over Mexican workers’ rights might not be altruistic, they do contain a basic truth. Mexican workers are, on average, the worst paid of the 35 countries in the OECD. Wages have stagnated. According to Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), the real value of the country’s minimum salary has dropped 60 percent in the past 30 years.

The reasons for that are complex, but labor expert Maria Xelhuantzi Lopez of UNAM university says one issue lies at the center of it all.

“The cause of the low salaries in Mexico is that there aren’t any unions that are regulating the working conditions or the salaries,” she says.

Since the 1980s, a phenomenon has exploded in Mexico – “protectionist” trade unions.

These unions work like this: a national or international company sets up in Mexico, and nine times out of ten, according to Lopez, rather than allowing the workers to actually form their own union, the company hires lawyers to produce a protectionist union.

These unions – which exist only on paper – sign a “collective” contract with the company and becomes the legal representative of the workers.

“They are paper unions – ghosts – because legally they exist, they cover all the legal requisites, but the workers aren’t included in the process,” Lopez says.

“Experts agree that 90 percent of the unions in the country (follow this model),” Lopez says.

It is clear, she says, why these protectionist unions have become so popular with employers. “What they do is to keep salaries low, maintain precarious labor conditions, keep workers rights to the minimum and increase the profits of the company,” she says.

Lopez says they are often formed before workers are even hired and always operate “behind their backs”.

Multinationals and ‘ghost’ unions

International companies coming to Mexico have also learned that setting up a protectionist union is an easy way to guarantee cheap labor, according to labor expert Graciela Bensusan of UNAM university.

“Many multinational companies were complicit in this fraud,” Bensusan says. She adds that some multinationals are opting out of the protectionist model “but others keep using it, like in the auto industry”.

Mexico’s auto industry is a key component of NAFTA and many international market leaders have set up in Mexico.

Leonardo Reyes, 38, works for one of them – the Japanese company Honda in a plant in Salto, a town in western Mexico. He says that when he arrived at the firm 17 years ago a collective contract with a protectionist union was already in place.

“They made me join a union I never saw. What does that union do for the workers? Practically nothing,” he says. “It’s on the side of the company. It takes no notice when we ask for higher salaries and it lessens the benefits we get.”

Reyes says that when he and colleagues tried to form their own union they encountered resistance from the company.

“There were a lot of repercussions for the workers who did this. Some got fired, in my case I was the head of machinery and after I entered the union the coordinators and managers put me on the assembly line,” he says.

With a wage of around $2.25 an hour, Reyes is one of the better paid workers in the factory. He says his lowest paid colleagues on the assembly line earn about $1.20. That is more than double the minimum wage in Mexico but a fraction of the $16 an hour earned by the lowest paid workers who are members of the US United Automobile Workers union.

Honda and the Mexican Auto Industry Association (AMIA) did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment.

Mexican workers build cars on an assembly line inside a Volkswagen factory in the southern-central Mexican state of Puebla [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera also contacted the Confederation of Mexican Employers (Coparmex) for their perspective on protectionist collective contracts and unions.

“The posture of Coparmex is total respect for the labor law and for the punishment of any abuses,” said Coparmex spokesman Gustavo Almaraz in a phone interview.

Legal challenges

The problem, according to labor experts, is that “ghost” unions, although unfair, are totally legal in Mexico.

This year, the government unveiled legislation that could in some way change that. It looks to regulate the creation, elections and activities of unions in Mexico.

But it has faced resistance, and not just from companies. The biggest alliance of Mexican workers’ unions is the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). It acts as an umbrella organization for the majority of the country’s unions and is especially powerful in the auto industry.

Labor experts have accused the CTM of taking the side of the companies and going against the very workers it is meant to support, and of having “ghost” unions in its ranks. Labor expert Bensusan of UNAM says: “The CTM’s first position was against raising the minimum salary. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.”

In a press conference this August, CTM leader Carlos Aceves del Olmo was reported as saying that Mexicans earning the same as workers in the US and Canada was a “pipe dream”. Olmo’s office declined a request for comment.

Corrupt union leaders

A lack of transparency is a recurring theme in Mexican unions, even within the minority that are not “ghosts” and which do exist and work on behalf of employees. These unions are usually behemoths, made up of public sector workers. They grew up in a symbiotic relationship with Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which governed the country for more than 70 uninterrupted years until 2000.

There is a name for them, too – “charro”, meaning cowboy.

According to Lopez, the labor expert at UNAM university, the moniker is appropriate for the union leaders, who grow rich off membership fees.

“There’s no transparency. In most cases, the money goes to towards union corruption, to the pockets of the leaders,” she says, adding that this is not their biggest money spinner and that most of it comes from kickbacks.

“More comes from the same companies that the unions are meant to counterbalance. It’s hidden in collective negotiations,” she says. “That’s the piggy bank of the union leaders and the most powerful cases are when the company has given houses or land to the union.”

The leader of the teachers’ union – Elba Esther Gordillo – has become an emblematic case of corruption. Gordillo is connected to three mansions in San Diego in California (one of which was valued at $4.7m and included a Jet Ski and a boat), and in 2008 she handed out 59 Hummers to loyal union subordinates. She was eventually imprisoned in 2013 for racketeering and money laundering.

Oil workers’ leader Carlos Romero Deschamps has also become known for his penchant for luxury yachts and apartments. Various national media outlets reported that he gave his son a Ferrari valued at around $2m. All this on a salary which, last time he allowed it to be known, was around $1,200 a year.

Former Honda employees who claim they were fired after trying to unionize meet in Guadalajara to discuss future strategies for creating a union. The former employees have a weekly radio show on a community radio station to raise awareness about unions [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Protection for corrupt union leaders doesn’t come just from the companies that benefit from their tractability, but also from the political class – whilst the leaders make it worth their while. The most famous case of illicit payment from a union to political parties came again from Deschamps’ oil workers’ union. In the presidential campaign of 2000, they illegally supplied more than $120m to the candidate of the ruling PRI.

National debate sparked by Trump

But the long entrenched alliance of union leaders, companies and politicians could now be under threat from outside of the country.

When NAFTA was signed in 1992, agreements over labor rights were placed in a poorly enforced sidebar to the main text. Now the US administration is pushing to bring those sidebar policies into the main NAFTA text, forcing the Mexican government to ensure the “effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining”.

The irony that it’s President Trump, little loved south of the US border, who is pressing for more rights for Mexican workers is not lost on Bensusan.

“The only thing we can thank President Trump for is the fact that he’s making us have a national debate over our economic model,” she says.

For labor experts, despite the US government’s ulterior motives, it still provides hope that the NAFTA re-negotiations might be the spur needed to act against “ghost” unions and get a better deal for the country’s workforce.

Additional reporting by Maria Verza.  Source: Al Jazeera

Pope, Patriarch Bartholomew: ‘Support the Consensus of the World’ to ‘Heal Our Wounded Creation’


Pope, Patriarch Bartholomew: ‘Support the Consensus of the World’ to ‘Heal Our Wounded Creation’

Lorraine Chow    September 1, 2017 Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Orthodox Christian Church, issued a joint statement to mark the third annual “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” on Friday.

The religious leaders appealed to those in positions of power to “hear the cry of the Earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized.”

“But above all,” they urged, “to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation.”

Francis and Bartholomew, who lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and up to 300 million Orthodox Christians, have both insisted on the preservation of the environment as a moral responsibility.

They wrote in their message that a “moral decay” and “our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets” is the reason behind the planet’s ecological devastation.

“We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service,” their statement concludes.

As Reuters noted, their Sept. 1 statement was not addressed to any political leader in particular but was given three months after President Trump, a climate skeptic who openly disagreed with Francis about the global phenomenon, controversially withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, an international accord to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global temperature rise well below 2°C.

The pontiff also offered words of sympathy to victims of Harvey, which the World Meteorological Organization linked to climate change. Francis said Thursday he was “deeply moved by the tragic loss of life and the immense material devastation that this natural catastrophe has left in its wake.”

Here is Francis and Bartholomew’s World Day of Prayer statement in full:

The story of creation presents us with a panoramic view of the world. Scripture reveals that, “in the beginning”, God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. At first, as we read in Genesis, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground” (2:5). The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility until, “in the end”, all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.

However, “in the meantime”, the history of the world presents a very different context. It reveals a morally decaying scenario where our attitude and behavior towards creation obscures our calling as God’s co-operators. Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets – all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession. We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs.

The consequences of this alternative worldview are tragic and lasting. The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe. Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work towards sustainable and integral development.

Therefore, united by the same concern for God’s creation and acknowledging the earth as a shared good, we fervently invite all people of goodwill to dedicate a time of prayer for the environment on 1 September. On this occasion, we wish to offer thanks to the loving Creator for the noble gift of creation and to pledge commitment to its care and preservation for the sake of future generations. After all, we know that we labor in vain if the Lord is not by our side (cf. Ps 126-127), if prayer is not at the centre of our reflection and celebration. Indeed, an objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world. The goal of our promise is to be courageous in embracing greater simplicity and solidarity in our lives.

We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation. We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service.

Harvey shines a spotlight on a high-risk area of chemical plants in Texas

The Guardian

Harvey shines a spotlight on a high-risk area of chemical plants in Texas

Long before the storm dropped barrels of rain over one of the world’s largest industrial corridors, the area was rife with potentially dangerous chemicals

Aerial footage shows flood-ravaged Texas chemical plant – video

Tom Dart in Houston and Jessica Glenza in New York   Sept 1, 2017

It was 2 am Texas time on Thursday when the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby caught fire and exploded. Flooded by Hurricane Harvey’s torrential rains, the plant lost power and refrigeration, and soon thereafter lost control of highly flammable organic peroxides it produces for use in paints and polystyrenes. The explosion cast a 30ft plume of toxic smoke over an evacuated Crosby.

But the explosion of Arkema, as dramatic as it was, is hardly the only source of chemicals potentially dangerous to Texans.

“Houston would be the largest hub of petrochemical and refining production capacity in all of North and South America,” said Trey Hamblet, the vice-president of global research for chemical processing at Industrial Info Resources Inc, a company that tracks chemical manufacturing worldwide.

Plants that handle hazardous chemicals line the Houston ship channel.   Toxic hazard plants-yellow       Superfund site-red

The Texas-Louisiana border is home to a melange of 840 petrochemical, refining and power plants operated by some of the world’s largest companies, according to Industrial Info. Valero, ExxonMobil and Shell Oil all operate plants here. The area is arguably one of the largest industrial corridors on earth.

Most shut down safely before and during the storm, but the contamination they cast over the area existed long before Harvey dropped barrels of rain over the low-lying area.

“In many ways Harvey is unprecedented – with the level of rain – but the difference is we had all of the information,” said Charise Johnson, a researcher for the Union of Concerned Scientists who has worked with neighborhoods in Houston that are surrounded by the same chemical plants. “We had it all. We knew how to prepare the communities. We knew how to prepare infrastructure. But that didn’t happen.”

Neighborhoods like Manchester, on Houston’s east side, reportedly stank of gas for days after the storm without explanation. Many assumed it was because a tank spilled an “unspecified” amount of its 6.3m gallon capacity.

Tightly framed by bayous, freeways and a huge refinery, Manchester has notoriously bad air quality, even by Houston’s standards. Several residents there said they did not flood and added that the air quality on Thursday was not noticeably worse than normal. fire burns at the flooded plant of French chemical maker Arkema in Crosby, Texas on Thursday. Photograph: Adrees Latif/Reuters

But the Texas commission on environmental quality received dozens of reports of compromised infrastructure in Harvey’s wake.

The second largest oil refinery in the country, a Baytown facility belonging to ExxonMobil, had a roof collapse and released pollutants into the air. Shell reported similar incidents due to heavy rains. Two tanks holding crude oil burst into flames near a wildlife preserve outside of Port Arthur after lightning struck the Karbuhn Oil Co.

About 20 miles east of Manchester along the Texas Independence Highway, where storage tanks are decorated with murals of the Battle of San Jacinto, there was a faint acrid smell in Baytown, a city of over 75,000 people.

Waiting for his order at the Taqueria Margarita taco truck, Marco Paz, a 21-year-old student, said that for the first time, some members of his family “were having trouble breathing and [getting] headaches” that lasted about two days at the height of the flooding.

Nearby, in the almost-deserted Town Square park, Canaan McKiernan strummed his guitar while his friend, Toby Smith, played with a wooden catch-ball toy.

“The chemical plants are… a mile or two away and the whole time during the hurricane you could see the flames [flaring] from way far, even in the rain; but it’s not the only time it does that, it does that kind of regularly,” McKiernan said. “I’ve lived here my whole life so you get used to it.”

Smith, 17, recently moved back to the area and said the air quality is “horrible”, especially given the heat and humidity of south Texas. “I feel like sometimes it just gets like harder to breathe, especially if you’re running or exercising sometimes. It’s just like, I’m more out of breath than I was up in Indiana,” he said.

“There are so many people in this town that work for them,” McKiernan, a 19-year-old student, said. “Unfortunately in the state that we live in and the area we live in it’s kind of a necessary evil. I mean, if Exxon wasn’t there then this whole town would be shit.”

Environmental worries did not stop when Harvey’s record-breaking rains abated.

“Our biggest concern is now that the flood water has receded is the flood water carried… a number of chemicals in the homes,” said Yvette Arellano, a researcher for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, better known as “Tejas”. “Our major priority we’re focusing on [is] cleanup.”

“We don’t even know what the complex mixtures are at this point,” said Garrett Sansom, an environmental scientist at Texas A&M University, who works in Manchester. “They’ve been dealing with areas of poor environmental conditions with the air and standing water, with heavy metals, polycyclic hydrocarbons,” he said, mentioning chemicals that come off of burnt materials.

For example, within one mile of Manchester, there are 11 generators of hazardous waste, nine major air polluters, eight storm water discharge facilities and four factories that treat, store or dispose of hazardous waste, according to one of Samson’s studies.

Tests of surface water in the area found the heavy metal barium in every sample. Arsenic, barium, chromium, lead and mercury were found in water two blocks from a public park.

In another study, the Union of Concerned Scientists found significantly higher cancer risks and respiratory hazards in Manchester than in other areas of Houston. Yet another study found benzene, a known carcinogen, belching out of pipelines below the ship channel near Manchester.

However, where water might have carried chemicals and metals since the neighborhood was inundated is unclear. Sansom is bringing his team to Manchester to collect samples on Friday afternoon.

“It’s usually a pretty complex mixture of chemicals that were already present in the environment and sewage and wildlife, like snakes,” said Samson about flood waters.
Others, like Johnson, hoped the loss of life and property might bring something else – hope.

“Doing environmental work in a place like Texas – where officials deny climate change is even happening – is extremely difficult. It’s a tough road, and they’ve been fighting this fight for a long time,” she said. “All I hope now is after this tragedy maybe people will start to listen, maybe they’ll take action”.

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7 Reasons We Face a Global Water Crisis


7 Reasons We Face a Global Water Crisis

By World Resources Institute, Leah Schleifer  August 26, 2017

Droughts in Somalia. Water rationing in Rome. Flooding in Jakarta. It doesn’t take a hydrologist to realize that there is a growing global water crisis. Each August, water experts, industry innovators and researchers gather in Stockholm for World Water Week to tackle the planet’s most pressing water issues.

What are they up against this year? Here’s a quick rundown on the growing global water crisis.

1) We’re Changing the Climate, Making Dry Areas Drier and Precipitation More Variable and Extreme

Climate Change is warming the planet, making the world’s hottest geographies even more scorching. At the same time, clouds are moving away from the equator toward the poles, due to a climate-change driven phenomenon called Hadley Cell expansion. This deprives equatorial regions like sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Central America of life-giving rainwater.

Paradoxically, climate change is also increasing precipitation in other areas, and people who live near rivers and streams have the most to lose. Currently, at least 21 million people worldwide are at risk of river flooding each year. That number could increase to 54 million by 2030. All countries with the greatest exposure to river floods are least developed or developing countries—which makes them even more vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. This summer, extreme flooding submerged over a third of Bangladesh, claiming more than 115 lives and affecting 5.7 million citizens.

2) More People + More Money = More Water Demand

It’s a simple equation: As populations increase and incomes grow, so does water demand. The world’s population, now at 7.5 billion, is projected to ad 2.3 billion more people by 2050. How can the planet satisfy their thirst? Growing incomes also exacerbate the water problem, because of the water-intensive products—like meat and energy from fossil fuels—that richer populations demand.

3) Groundwater Is Being Depleted

About 30 percent of Earth’s fresh water lies deep underground in aquifers. And it’s extracted daily for farming, drinking and industrial processes—often at dangerously unsustainable rates. Nowhere is this more evident than India, which guzzles more groundwater than any other country. 54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are decreasing, meaning that water is used faster than it’s replenished. Unless patterns shift, in 20 years 60 percent of India’s aquifers will be in critical condition.

Unlike an incoming hurricane or a drained lake, the naked eye cannot see when groundwater reserves in aquifers are declining. Global water supplies are susceptible to this hidden and growing threat.

4) Water Infrastructure Is in a Dismal State of Disrepair

Having enough water to go around is only the beginning. That water also needs to be transported, treated and discharged. Around the world, water infrastructure treatment plants, pipes and sewer systems are in a state of disrepair. In the U.S., six billion gallons of treated water are lost per day from leaky pipes alone. Built infrastructure is notoriously expensive to install and repair, meaning that many localities ignore growing infrastructure issues until disaster strikes, as it did in California earlier this year.

5) And Natural Infrastructure Is Being Ignored machinery removing trees in EcuadorFlickr / CIFOR

Healthy ecosystems are “natural infrastructure” and vital to clean, plentiful water. They filter pollutants, buffer against floods and storms, and regulate water supply. Plants and trees are essential for replenishing groundwater; without them, rainfall will slide across dry land, instead of seeping into the soil. Loss of vegetation from deforestation, overgrazing and urbanization is limiting our natural infrastructure and the benefits that it provides. Forested watersheds around the world are under threat: watersheds have lost up to 22 percent of their forests in the last 14 years.

6) Water Is Wasted

Although it’s true that water is a renewable resource, it’s often wasted. Inefficient practices like flood irrigation and water-intensive wet cooling at thermal plants use more water than necessary. What’s more, as we pollute our available water at an alarming rate, we also fail to treat it. About 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is discharged back into nature without further treatment or reuse. In many countries, it’s cheaper to receive clean drinking water than to treat and dispose of wastewater, which encourages water waste. This brings us to the next issue:

7) The Price Is Wrong

Globally, water is seriously undervalued. Its price does not reflect the true, total cost of service, from its transport via infrastructure to its treatment and disposal. This has led to mis-allocation of water, and a lack of investments in infrastructure and new water technologies that use water more efficiently. After all, why would a company or government invest in expensive water-saving technologies, when water is cheaper than the technology in question? When the price of receiving clean water is closer to its actual service cost, efficient water use will be incentivized. And on the flip side, the poor often end up paying disproportionately high prices for water, stunting development.

It’s Not Too Late

Amidst these seven deadly water sins, there is good news: governments, businesses, universities and citizens around the world are waking up to water challenges, and beginning to take action. Each year brings more solutions—like using wastewater for energy, using restoration to bring water back to dry topographies, and monitoring groundwater levels more closely. However, even the best solutions will not implement themselves. Along with fresh water, political will and public pressure are critical resources in ensuring a sustainable future for all.