Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2011 Vol. 58 No. 1


TECQ Mobile Command Center
TECQ Mobile Command Center. Photo courtesy of TCEQ.

The goal of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is to ensure clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste in Texas. In times of disaster, meeting those goals becomes especially challenging.

What does the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality do for the state of Texas following disasters?
The TCEQ has a multitude of duties following disasters that involve water quality, air quality, public drinking water, wastewater, hazardous chemicals spills and debris removal. The initial focus is evaluation of drinking water and wastewater infrastructure because that will have the most immediate impact on residents in the impact area. Hazardous chemical spills are also a priority. We coordinate with other agencies on removal and disposal of livestock carcasses and, if there are fish kills, we will investigate the source of the problem. We work with entities to set up staging areas for debris removal. Because some debris may have to be burned, air monitoring may be performed by the TCEQ. In addition, we have dam safety staff to determine whether this infrastructure remains sound. In areas with refineries and petrochemical plants, the TCEQ will work with every facility to determine the extent of damage and whether spills occurred. The agency may inspect state and federal Superfund sites if there are such sites in the area.

Please describe functions involving chemical spills.
One of the first objectives is to quickly ascertain whether hazardous chemicals have spilled from any industrial facilities or are leaking from containers or storage tanks swept from their original sites. “Orphan” containers – sometimes found miles from their home base – include everything from propane tanks from backyard barbecues to large storage tanks from industrial facilities. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, the TCEQ found a 12,000-gallon fuel tank in Galveston that had floated from a small airport several miles away. Approximately 46,000 orphan containers were recovered by staff from TCEQ, United States Environmental Protection Agency and contract personnel following Hurricane Ike.

How does the TCEQ strike team work?
Hundreds of TCEQ staff members may be involved in recovery from a disaster, and many are trained in emergency response. But the first on the scene will be a select group of highly trained staff, specific for that particular event. They search for leaking industrial tanks, floating hazardous waste drums washed away from industrial sites, and other environmental problems. Before approaching an orphan container, TCEQ staff use mobile monitors to test for leaking vapors and ionizing radiation. Once the container is determined to be secure, GPS coordinates are recorded for later pickup and proper disposal by a contractor.

What is your role in the debris issue?
Storms can leave behind massive amounts of debris. Local municipalities and county governments are responsible for setting up temporary staging areas where the debris can be delivered and sorted. After Hurricane Ike, the Houston, Galveston, and Beaumont areas had 199 temporary sites with more than 10 million cubic yards of debris. It was the TCEQ’s job to visit the sites regularly to assess whether debris was properly managed. Generally, debris is separated into trees and branches, construction and treated lumber, “white goods” like refrigerators and other appliances, and household hazardous waste.

Please discuss water quality issues.
Another primary duty is assessing the operational status of public drinking water facilities and wastewater treatment plants. After Hurricane Ike, the TCEQ contacted more than 2,000 facilities to determine which ones had been left inoperable by the storm. Sites that could not be reached by phone were visited by TCEQ staff in the field. The TCEQ assisted local operators in locating generators or replacing damaged equipment. After Hurricane Rita in 2005, the TCEQ determined there were 200 public drinking water systems that could not function. The TCEQ helped line up generators and fuel to bring them back on line.

The TCEQ also tracks the boiled water notices issued in communities where service has been interrupted or contaminants have been found in the water. Later, communities are notified when water becomes safe to use straight from the tap. TCEQ collects water samples and helps conduct analyses. When floodwaters show unusually high levels of contaminants, it becomes important to identify the toxins as soon as possible. 

The TCEQ also evaluates surface water quality parameters after disasters like Hurricanes Rita and Ike. While responding during Rita, staff observed large fish kills and discolored water. The fish kills were determined to be from a significant loss of dissolved oxygen and associated with the storm surge and high flow conditions. The TCEQ surface water quality biologists coordinated their findings with other responders to confirm that the fish kills were not associated with spills from industrial facilities.        

What were some specific TCEQ actions taken after Hurricane Ike?
This is a summary of agency activities in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in the 10-county area encompassing Houston, Galveston, and Beaumont.

  • Identified and evaluated over 5,000 hazardous material target areas and contained and recovered more than 45,000 orphaned containers, drums and tanks.
  • Assessed operational status and damage to 1,384 public water systems and 734 wastewater treatment plants.
  • Tracked over 1,200 boil water notices.
  • Evaluated debris management at 175 temporary sites.
  • Assessed damage at 13 refineries and 47 chemical facilities, all of which shut down operations before the storm.
  • Assessed 28 landfills and conducted air monitoring.
  • Assessed over 380 square miles for storm surge residue.

The TECQ staff

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