What Happens When a Hurricane Smashes Into Fossil Fuels?
When hurricanes hit our coasts, vulnerable fossil fuel plants threaten local communities, wildlife, and entire ecosystems with a “second storm” of toxic air, poisoned water, and chemical fires. Here‘s what needs to be done to reduce and eliminate the risks.
Black smoke billowed from a chemical plant near Lake Charles, Louisiana. The worst of Hurricane Laura had passed, but the time of crisis was far from over. In cell phone footage taken by passing drivers, the smoke rolls thickly over the I-10, contrasting strangely against the gray rainclouds of the departing hurricane. City leaders issued a shelter-in-place warning, urging nearby residents to close their doors, turn off air conditioners, and do their best not to breathe the air outside — all while dealing with the trauma of homes devastated by the hurricane.
The residents of Lake Charles were experiencing a post-hurricane domino effect sometimes called a “natech” disaster. When extreme weather and seismic events, like hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, hit unprepared facilities that handle fossil fuels and other toxic materials, the threat is magnified by the release of chemicals resulting from infrastructural damage. During and after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, chemical and petrochemical facilities released millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the air. Juan Parras of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) says communities in Houston experienced a “second storm” of toxic pollution on top of the hurricane itself.
The hurricane-prone Gulf Coast is riddled with chemical plants, including roughly half of the nation’s oil and gas refineries. Due to discriminatory patterns of government regulation, these facilities are typically situated in low-income areas, causing particular harm to communities of color.
What happens when a hurricane smashes into oil refineries or other toxic facilities?
In a 2018 report, the World Health Organization laid out the scenarios that can unfold when a facility is built in a hurricane-prone area but lacks the strictest preparedness:
- High winds tip over storage tanks containing toxic chemicals, as happened during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Wind can also dislodge the piping that links storage and processing units. Objects launched by high winds, like tree branches — or entire roofs — can also puncture storage vessels and rupture tanks.
- Toxic gases decompose inside damaged storage tanks when temperature controls malfunction. These gases can combust, causing a chemical fire, or release into the atmosphere above populated areas (as happened in Lake Charles).
- Storm surges and floods dislodge oil tanks, storage drums, and other equipment from their secure holdings. Floodwater also mingles with the toxic chemicals found in fossil fuel plants, like benzene, vinyl chloride, butadiene, and other known human carcinogens.
- Chemical fires occur when water mixes with flammable hydrocarbons, such as those present in crude oil. The resulting explosive reaction causes a pool fire. Ohio’s 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, the most infamous example of a fossil fuel-related pool fire gone horribly awry, spurred the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- Lightning disrupts electrical circuitry and safety control systems, which can lead to toxic releases. During Hurricane Harvey, lightning struck a unit at a Dow Chemical plant in Freeport, Texas, releasing 34,000 pounds of benzene, toluene, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants into the city’s atmosphere.
What’s the potential public health fallout when toxic facilities are hit by hurricanes?
- Chemical burns and respiratory tract injuries can result from inhalation of poison gas, asbestos, or ruptured wall insulation. Exposure to benzene, for example, can cause liver damage and blood disorders, as well as hepatic and bone-marrow issues in children.
- The accumulation of toxic gases over a populated area is often cause for shelter-in-place orders, which can impede post-hurricane rescue efforts.
- Poisoning from exposure to toxic runoff is a major risk as people wade through polluted floodwaters during evacuation.
- Electrocution from downed power lines and broken electrical equipment create hazardous situations that threaten both residents and rescue teams.
- Disrupted power supplies and lack of electricity can instantly turn into a deadly situation for evacuees who need clean water, food, medical supplies, and access to electronic communication.
Research on toxic exposure after Hurricanes Harvey and Maria shows the health harm doesn’t disappear but, rather, can worsen even after the storm clears.
Who’s affected most by this combination of disasters?
Throughout the storm and in the immediate aftermath, industrial workers and emergency first responders brave harrowing conditions accessing and stabilizing chemical sites. Hurricane victims also face greater danger as natech incidents redirect essential services that would otherwise go toward rescue efforts. Rescue operations get hampered when freeways are closed due to fires, poison gas, or chemical spills along roadways.
Anyone who lives near a fossil fuel facility is at risk from chemical disaster before, during, and after a hurricane. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the burdens fall most heavily on people of color: Latinx and Black households are, respectively, 60% and 75% more likely to have chemical facilities nearby than the nation as a whole.
These communities have been forced by decades of segregationist housing policy and racially-biased zoning decisions into “sacrifice zones” — areas of concentrated industrial pollution. Petrochemical facilities along the Gulf coast, for example, are in areas with lax government regulation and in states that have failed to implement public health and safety requirements.
What are the environmental impacts of natech disasters?
The environmental impacts of natech disasters extend to all life in affected regions. Wildlife habitats sustain immense damage, as disrupted soil cycles and polluted water prevent regional ecosystems from returning to normal.
After Hurricane Katrina, 10 million gallons of oil seeped into the New Orleans Area Watershed, destroying the native habitats of shrimp, fish, reptiles, and dozens of bird species. Damage from the storm also wiped out a quarter of the area’s marshlands, which makes it even more critical to protect the region’s remaining marshes from fossil fuel pollution.
How do we avoid chemical disasters during hurricanes?
Before a hurricane makes landfall, oil and gas producers scramble to shut down infrastructure. This process is extremely dangerous, involving complex safety controls and chemical flares. Technological failures during a hurricane can trigger runaway chemical reactions that lead to explosion. This was the case in Crosby, Texas, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The Arkema petrochemical plant lost its backup power, causing temperatures to rise inside cold storage tanks containing flammable organic peroxides sited in a flood plain.
Even bringing a plant back online after a hurricane is a hazardous, multi-day process that can create new disasters. During Hurricane Harvey, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board issued a stern warning for restarting oil refineries and chemical plants: “In the wake of the hurricane, adhering to appropriate safety management systems can mean the difference between a safe and uneventful startup and a serious incident,” the alert said. Still, these facilities released millions of pounds of toxic air pollution during the weeks following Harvey.
As each intensifying hurricane season demonstrates, fossil fuels are both creating climate change and making its impacts more lethal on humans and the environment. Despite this, fossil fuel companies are racing to expand their operations, leaning heavily into toxic petrochemicals as a lifeline for the struggling industry, as communities like St. James Parish, La. rise up to oppose this onslaught.
This destruction of communities and ecosystems does not have to continue. As the chairperson of the Chemical Safety Board said in a statement regarding the Arkema disaster: “We cannot stop the storms, but working together, we can mitigate the damage and avoid a future catastrophic incident.”
Measures like the Chemical Disaster Rule strengthened prevention and preparedness requirements for explosions and other catastrophes, while also informing the public about the risks to their communities. But then EPA rescinded these life-saving prevention measures in late 2019, a decision that communities, workers, and states are now fighting in federal court.
Oil and gas operators can also adopt stronger protections for the communities they endanger, including consistently and comprehensively monitoring the areas surrounding fossil fuel infrastructure. These companies should also strengthen their facilities’ emergency protocols and work with local and federal authorities to develop stronger disaster response and real-time data for workers and first responders.
The only way to fully eliminate the dangers of fossil fuel infrastructure is to remove it altogether.
“It’s time for strong government action to stop the industry from building fossil fuel and chemical facilities that threaten communities’ health in natural disaster-prone areas,” says Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse. “For existing facilities, EPA must finally do its job to end the dangerous cycle of chemical disasters as hurricanes hit the Gulf every year. Instead of rolling back prevention measures and giving facilities a free pass to pollute as this EPA has done, the agency must strengthen the federal rules to ensure that companies take commonsense measures to prepare for storms and actually prevent fires, explosions, and toxic releases.” Cheuse says the EPA can achieve this by:
- Adopting safer practices for handling chemicals;
- Removing all illegal exemptions from the national pollution standards; and
- Implementing fenceline monitoring, community alert systems, and multilingual emergency response measures.
“We can’t let the federal government get away with failing to protect communities that are in harm’s way from the double danger of chemical disasters and serious storms,” Cheuse says.
Alison Cagle is a writer at Earthjustice. She is based in San Francisco. Alison tells the stories of the earth: the systems that govern it, the ripple effects of those systems, and the people who are fighting to change them — to protect our planet and all its inhabitants.