Watchdog Says EPA Put Infrastructure Over People After Hurricane

Rescue boats fill a flooded street as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey rise in Houston on Aug. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

(CN) – The Environmental Protection Agency was quick to protect water infrastructure systems in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey but didn’t do a good job reaching out to residents of vulnerable communities, according to a report from the agency’s internal watchdog.

The EPA’s Office of Inspector General said in the 21-page report issued Tuesday that the agency should focus more on gathering data to help determine which populations will be most vulnerable to storms like the Category 4 hurricane that battered Houston in August 2017, turning the city into a lake with days of unending rain.

The audit assessed EPA Region 6’s approach to “emergency support functions” in the three weeks following the storm, specifically regarding oil and hazardous material mitigation.

Part of that process involved assessing the quality of drinking water and wastewater facilities in coordination with state agencies, including the Austin-based Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The EPA was also required to reach out to disadvantaged communities potentially affected by water contaminations, “such as immigrant communities where English is not the primary language,” according to the report.

For example, Region 6 staff sent out informational packets to explain how to disinfect drinking water when processing stations might be compromised due to the storm and other materials addressing concerns about private water facilities, such as wells and septic systems.

Though the inspector general found that agency successfully completed its requirements for hazard mitigation at water facilities, it also found that outreach to communities that did not primarily speak English, such as Vietnamese and Mexican neighborhoods, was lacking because Region 6’s “environmental justice liaisons” ran out of pamphlets in their respective languages, according to the report.

Staffers also did not post pamphlets about wells and septic systems in Spanish, though they did post water disinfection pamphlets in Spanish both in print and online. Region 6 printed pamphlets for water treatment, wells and septic systems in Vietnamese, but did not post the materials online and eventually ran out of printed versions, the report states.

The internal watchdog outlined four recommended changes for the EPA’s regional administrator: reaching out to disadvantaged communities to facilitate preparation exercises prior to severe weather events; including “justice outreach” in pre-landfall hurricane plan; implementing changes from a 2018 forum on environmental justice; and preparing all these plans in advance of future storms.

“The Houston area has the country’s third-largest populations of both Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants. For the first time during a hurricane response, Region 6 deployed environmental justice liaisons to communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey. EPA Region 6 also established a telephone hotline and email account to provide updates on the response and receive environmental justice concerns,” the report states.

It continues, “However, not all residents in Houston-area communities received this information because regional staff did not have sufficient quantities of translated pamphlets… It is not known how many people needed translated materials but did not receive them. The shortage of printed translated pamphlets as well as a lack of translated versions of the pamphlets posted online for Houston communities meant that non-native English speakers may have lacked essential public safety information regarding the risks of floodwaters and how to disinfect drinking water.”

With the directives set for future hurricane responses in Houston, the EPA’s inspector general and Region 6 agreed to a March 31, 2021, deadline to integrate environmental justice into its emergency planning and response procedures.

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