As Hurricane Laura bears down on Louisiana and Texas and half a million people flee what forecasters are calling an “unsurvivable storm surge,” environmentalists are also worried about something else: the more than 60 refineries and petrochemical plants in the path of the Category 4 hurricane.
“The storm surge goes into the neighborhoods around them and people get wastewater and contaminated dirt in their homes and yards,” said Michael Tritico, president of the environmental group Restore in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
The region has seen this before. Following Hurricane Harvey, which slammed into Houston three years ago, oil refineries and petrochemical plants in that storm’s path took a direct hit, collectively releasing hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater and more than a million pounds of toxic air contaminants. Noxious chemical compounds, including heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, were later found in the soil of nearby homes. The Associated Press found that nearly half a billion gallons of industrial wastewater were emitted from just one chemical plant in Baytown, Texas, during the flooding caused by Harvey. The toxic stew included benzene, vinyl chloride, butadiene, and other known human carcinogens. A similar spilled occurred just outside of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. And that is only a partial assessment: The true figures may never be known, experts say.
Many fear this time around could be just as bad, if not worse. Hurricane Laura is currently predicted to make landfall between Port Arthur and Lake Charles with winds howling at upward of 150 miles per hour. That means that even after the storm waters recede, people could be facing threats to their health from chemical spills, runoff, and air polluted by volatile organic compounds, according to some scientists.
“Every time we see a major storm hit this area, we see spills and chemical releases, and the path and strength of this particular storm really worries me,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director at Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Around Port Arthur in Texas, Harvey damaged facilities and led to accidental toxic releases in the community and the community saw health effects from it, and it's going to be those same facilities and those same communities exposed this time. It's like it's just going to go on repeat. It's very predictable, but very preventable.”
But three years after Hurricane Harvey, environmental advocates say few regulations have been put into place to avoid a repeat of what happened.
In the wake of a 2013 explosion at a Texas chemical plant, the Obama administration set new standards in an effort to prevent future accidents. Under the standards, companies would have to make public information about what kinds of chemicals they were storing and undertake several safety precautions, including looking for safer technology and procedures, conducting root-cause analyses after a major chemical release, and getting third-party audits after accidents.
Goldman thinks the Obama-era rule could have made a big difference on the Gulf Coast. But in one of his first acts as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt suspended the new standards after chemical companies complained that the guidance imposed too much of a burden, the Washington Post reported in November. Advocates complain that the rules approved by the Trump administration last year are too watered down to be effective.
Corey Williams, research and policy director at Air Alliance Houston, said Texas lawmakers have also failed to learn the lessons of Hurricane Harvey.
Indeed, of the 68 major oil refineries and petrochemical plants in Hurricane Laura’s path, EPA data show 32 facilities are currently tagged with significant violations of one or more of the nation’s environmental laws.
“One of the main problems we had in Harvey was floating roof tanks at refineries, which failed,” said Williams. “There was legislation in the last legislative session that would have mitigated for that happening again by requiring a geodesic dome on top of these tanks that would deflect the water and keep them from overflowing and releasing their chemicals. The bill didn't even get out of committee. It was just a common-sense precaution, but it wasn't able to get anywhere in our industry-friendly environment.”
“It's a really problematic area for hurricanes,” added Goldman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Given it's a low-lying area with a huge amount of oil and petrochemical facilities and the population that is there is very vulnerable. It tends to be lower-income communities of color. There's a higher rate of people that don't have access to cars and a good bit of people who speak English as a second language. So there are lots of issues that make it even harder for these populations to evacuate and trust that they'll be taken care of. And then there's of course COVID on top of all of this.”