Sun. Jul 3rd, 2022


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Lack of Power Hinders Assessment of Toxic Pollution Caused by Ida

5 min read

A fertilizer plant battered by Hurricane Ida belched highly toxic anhydrous ammonia into the air. Two damaged gas pipelines leaked isobutane and propylene, flammable chemicals that are hazardous to human health. And a plastic plant that lost power in the storm’s aftermath is emitting ethylene dichloride, yet another toxic substance.

Early incident reports filed with the federal authorities are starting to paint a clearer picture of the damage wrought by the hurricane to Louisiana’s industrial corridor, complicating relief efforts and adding to the conditions that make it perilous for residents to return.

An analysis of facility records and power outage data shows that at least 138 industrial sites that handle large amounts of hazardous substances are in and around parishes that have completely lost power, forcing facilities to rely on precarious backup power systems. Hurricane Harvey, which brought torrential rain to parts of Texas in 2017, knocked out cooling power at a chemical plant outside Houston, triggering a series of explosions that injured emergency workers and prompted a local evacuation.

Local officials were still assessing the full extent of the damage. But adding to the uncertainty, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality warned that more than a third of its ambient monitoring sites had stopped working, primarily because of power outages. And some sites, like the Valero Refinery in St. Bernard Parish, said they had shut down their air monitors ahead of the storm to protect the equipment.

“Survival and recovery is what’s most important right now,” said Yudith Nieto, a longtime community organizer working in both Louisiana and Texas. But as residents start to return to their homes and size up the damage, facilities and the chemical runoff for emissions and pollution will be a big concern.”

At the fertilizer facility in Ascension Parish run by CF Industries, the country’s largest producer of fertilizer, crews were unable to reach two storage tanks that were releasing anhydrous ammonia, the company said in a report to the federal National Response Center. Anhydrous ammonia is a colorless, pungent gas that can cause severe health problems, including respiratory damage and blindness. Hurricane winds extinguished the flares that had been burning the chemical off, the company said.

Christopher Close, a spokesman for CF Industries, said there was no indication the gas leaked outside the facility. “Any significant release would likely be noticed and reported in the surrounding area (by smell),” Mr. Close wrote in an email. Company engineers were going through data to determine the extent of the ammonia released, he added.

Phillips 66 reported two damaged pipelines in St. Charles Parish were leaking propylene and isobutane, both flammable gases that are highly hazardous to human health. Local employees did not know whether any chemicals had also reached nearby waterways, the oil and gas company said in its filing. Phillips 66 did not immediately respond to emails seeking more information.

Power outages caused by the storm triggered a release of ethylene dichloride from a storage tank at a plastics plant in Plaquemine operated by Shintech, a subsidiary of the Japanese industrial giant Shin-Etsu. The chemical, used to produce PVC plastic, can harm the respiratory system and has been linked to other negative health effects. The facility is undergoing a $1.5 billion expansion, part of the continued expansion of Louisiana’s fossil fuel infrastructure. Messages left with Shin-Etsu went unanswered.

The oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell reported that its refinery and chemical complex in Norco had released an unknown amount of hydrogen as the company shut down the plant ahead of the hurricane’s arrival. On Monday, flooding and black smoke billowing from flares at the sprawling facility painted an apocalyptic scene.

Shell has assured the Environmental Protection Agency that a small amount of gases were still going to the flares, the agency said in its latest bulletin. The Louisiana State Police is also monitoring a gasoline spill at the site, the E.P.A. said.

Environmental groups have heightened calls for an overhaul of safety rules that are meant to protect the public from chemical leaks and accidents, saying companies should be required to more explicitly prepare for climate-related disasters like floods, wildfires and other climate impacts that threaten communities near chemical facilities. Unions representing plant workers and emergency responders, who risk some of the worst chemical exposures, also say stronger protections are needed.

“These communities already have the stress of being near these facilities on a day-to-day basis,” said Casey Kalman, a researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who carried out the analysis of the industrial facilities without power.

“But every time a storm hits, the dice is being rolled and there’s the potential that there could be some kind of release or explosion that could harm them and their families,” she said. “They have to worry about a double disaster.”

Sites aren’t currently required to have backup power, and emergency responders often aren’t given sufficient information on chemicals at the site to fight leaks and fires. Environmental groups are also calling for air monitoring along fences surrounding facilities, and alerts issued in multiple languages, to keep nearby neighborhoods informed of any threats to safety.

Those neighborhoods tend to be disproportionately low-income and communities of color. Black, Latino and other people of color account for nearly half of those who live within one mile of hazardous industrial sites regulated by the E.P.A., agency data shows.

The Obama administration had moved to strengthen emergency preparedness at those sites, which are required to submit Risk Management Plans to the E.P.A. But President Donald J. Trump proposed weakening the regulation instead.

President Biden is now in the process of reviewing the rules, which would apply to more than 12,000 industrial facilities in the United States, such as chemical manufacturers, oil refineries, water treatment plants, fertilizer plants, and pulp and paper mills. More than 2,500 chemical facilities in the United States already lie in areas prone to flooding.

The flooding and widespread power failures were also hampering efforts by the E.P.A. to survey damage to 23 Superfund toxic cleanup sites in Louisiana. As of Tuesday, agency staff said they had assessed 10 and had found no chemical releases or other problems. As many as 60 percent of these sites are exposed to flooding, storm surge, wildfire, and sea level rise, a Congressional audit found in 2019.

Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who has helped communities battle industrial pollution, said the combination of widespread power outages and leaks was particularly worrying.

“When a lot of the community doesn’t have access to electricity or internet, they can’t receive these alerts,” she said. “It could be happening in their backyard or their side yard and they have no way of knowing.”

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