Athenica Advocate
September 2017


Hurricanes Harvey and Irma: The Environmental and Public Health Impacts from Severe Weather Events

In light of recent developments regarding public health and environmental impacts associated with severe weather events, Athenica has taken a look back at some of the often overlooked long-lasting environmental impacts of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy as lessons learned to be applied to the recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and the Carribean.

In 2005 and 2012, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy exposed critical shortcomings in infrastructure throughout two very different regions of the country. While much of the immediate recovery efforts from the storms focused on plugging leaks in levees in New Orleans and fortifying protective dunes along the densely populated New York and New Jersey coastlines, the widespread reality of overwhelmed wastewater treatment facilities, toxic leaks from private industry, and hazardous mold damage went largely mitigated without substantial change to operating procedures and future planning. Similar to the expanse of damage sustained by the petrochemical industry throughout Louisiana during Katrina, Houston’s bustling shipping channel is home to nearly 500 industrial sites attributed to the petroleum and chemical industries, many from which we are still learning of the amount of damage as a result of Harvey. In addition to large-scale releases from industry, according to the New York Times, callers had reported a total of 96 oil, chemical, and/or sewage spills in the Houston area from August 26th to September 3rd. Such spills are difficult to track and can pose an immediate and localized effect, as they are often located in more densely populated areas and are likely to pollute directly contacted floodwaters.

Researchers have stated that a lot has been learned from Katrina regarding floodwaters – we have learned that floodwaters can have high bacterial counts from sewage contamination and that prolonged contact with floodwaters can lead to severe skin and bacterial infections. Because of their flat terrain, regions like Florida and Texas rely heavily on wastewater lift stations with electric pumps to move sewage. Widespread power outages from the storms caused immense discharges of untreated and partially treated wastewater to the surrounding waterways.

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a total of 14 public drinking water systems and 31 waste water facilities remained inoperable, as of this past weekend. In addition, many of the counties and municipalities throughout Texas and Florida whose public drinking water systems are operable have boil water advisories in effect as they cannot completely ensure that the provided drinking water is safe. Further complicating the assurance of clean drinking water, hundreds of thousands of people across the 38 Texas counties affected by Hurricane Harvey use private domestic wells (according to an estimate by Louisiana State University researchers). It is up to the well owners to determine if their drinking water is safe, many of who may return to using their wells without any sort of appropriate mitigation. Additional long-lasting environmental issues associated with these storms are the prolonged effects associated with water damage. Similar to what occurred in New York and New Jersey, mold remediation and indoor air quality issues that are often overlooked may be a big challenge that the residents of Florida and Texas will be struggling with for years to come.

As the effects of hurricanes Harvey and Irma continue to be assessed, people near and far have been affected by these terrible circumstances. Athenica has proudly made a donation and we urge everyone, if possible, to lend support. You may click on the following links to find lists of vetted relief agencies for Harvey and Irma.


OSHA’s New Silica Rule

On Sept. 23rd, OSHA’s new silica rule is scheduled to go into effect. What exactly does that mean for the construction industry and contractors? Contractors who engage in activities that create “Respirable Crystalline Silica dust” will now have a stricter standard for the amount of dust their workers can inhale. Inhaling silica dust can lead to many diseases including silicosis, lung cancer, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The new standard requires that silica dust particles be limited to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an 8 hour average work day and that employers must provide training and other services to their employees. Those who do not comply with the new standard will be subject to fines. For more information on this new rule, please click here.