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Tina Casey headshot

Harvey Flooding Potentially Spilled Chemicals at 400+ Water Treatment Plants

By Tina Casey

The Union of Concerned Scientists has assembled a list of facilities potentially impacted by flooding related to Hurricane Harvey, and the picture may surprise those who focus on Superfund sites. There are a lot of potential chemical stews brewing along the Gulf coast -- 650 of them.

The full extent of the environmental impact won't be known until the sites are assessed, but for now the UCS's list -- culled from satellite images of flooded areas -- provides more evidence of the need to invest in infrastructure that resists the impact of intensive weather events.

650 facilities flooded by Harvey (more or less)

The flooded areas have been delineated by the Dartmouth Flood Observatory, which uses satellite imagery that resolves to 10 meters, and the facilities list may contain some imprecise or inaccurate locations (the list was gleaned from data compiled by the US Energy Information Agency and EPA).

UCS cautions that its list is not a definitive one in terms of measuring environmental impacts, partly because some of the facilities (or hopefully, most of them) within the Harvey-flooded areas may have been sufficiently prepared, and partly because its data sources are not accurate with pinpoint precision.

On the other hand, although fewer than 650 facilities could be impacted, it is possible that the environmental impacts extend beyond the bounds of each facilities' walls.

The list only covers three types of plants for which data is available: energy infrastructure including refineries and power plants, wastewater treatment plants, and three types of chemical facilities including Superfund sites as well as sites covered by EPA's Toxic Release Inventory and Risk Management programs.

As a final note, the UCS list includes almost 430 wastewater treatment facilities. Regardless of whether they are municipal or industrial facilities, the impact of Harvey could potentially include environmentally harmful releases of untreated waste as well as treatment chemicals stored on site.

Rethinking flood preparation

One lesson learned from Harvey is the need to revise protocols for chemical facilities to prepare for hurricane and flood events.

According to UCS analysis, almost 200 facilities in the flooded areas are included in the three categories covered by EPA, including at least seven superfund sites.

The Superfund sites have been getting a lot of media attention, but those are inactive sites under remediation plans. The active facilities can cause just as much if not more harm. UCS explains:

Before the storm hit, many facilities shut down preemptively, releasing toxic chemicals in the process. In the wake of the storm, explosions at Arkema’s Crosby facility highlighted the risks that flooding and power failures pose to the region’s chemical facilities and, by extension, the health of the surrounding population.

That's an especially acute public health consideration for low income communities, which tend to be clustered near industrial sites.

A more environmentally-oriented approach to storm preparation is also a bottom line consideration. The Arkema disaster, for example, resulted in a $1 million lawsuit filed by first responders who were sickened by a chemical fire after Harvey flooded the facility. The Associated Press reports:

The suit in local court alleges Arkema failed to properly store the chemicals considering how prone the region is to floods. The chemicals became unstable and exploded in flames on Aug. 31 after refrigeration was lost to generator failures.

As of this writing, the responders are seeking a restraining order that would prevent Arkema from altering the site until an investigation takes place.

The case for biofuel

The high concentration of refineries and storage tanks along the Gulf coast is another area of concern. TriplePundit has been among the many to observe that the ripple effect on fuel prices reached far beyond the immediate area of Harvey's impact.

The Associated Press, for example, counted more than two dozen individual storage tanks that "ruptured or otherwise failed" during Harvey, resulting in the release of 145,000 gallons of fuel as well as airborne pollutants.

Harvey flooding also resulted in the shutdown of the troubled Colonial Pipeline, the major inland transportation route from Texas refineries to points east.

To be clear, biofuel production is not risk-free. However, the next-generation approach to biofuel is a regional one that draws from a wide variety of regional sources and sells to local markets. This more flexible model could help reduce the nation's reliance on centralized fuel hubs located in high risk coastal areas.

Texas refineries still in recovery mode

As for whether or not there will be any lessons learned, AP points out that the Harvey-related tank failures were predictable and preventable:
The tank failures follow years of warnings that the Houston area’s petrochemical industry was ill-prepared for a major storm, with about one-third of the 4,500 storage tanks along the Houston Ship Channel located in areas susceptible to flooding, according to researchers.

Two weeks after Harvey hit, the Texas refining industry is still suffering the impacts.

On Monday, CNN reported:

Five oil refineries remain shuttered as of Monday, according to S&P Global Platts, an energy research firm. Ten more are partially shut down as they attempt to recover from historic flooding.

All told, about 2.4 million barrels of daily refining capacity in Texas is offline because of Harvey, Platts estimates. That is about 13% of the country's total ability to turn oil into gasoline, jet fuel and other products.

CNN attributes the delays to flooding and other damages, power outages, and in some cases "challenges" related to the abrupt shutdowns.

If the environmental and public health issues aren't enough to hammer home the need for more attention to climate change resiliency, perhaps the bottom line concerns will motivate change.

Image (screenshot): Sites potentially affected by Harvey flooding via Union of Concerned Scientists.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey