Hell and High Water: Communities have a right to know about potential chemical accidents during flooding

From our work with refinery accidents, we are consistently shocked by the state of emergency preparedness in Louisiana when it comes to chemical accidents. We know from refinery reports that accidents are more likely to occur during bad weather like flooding, heavy rains, hurricanes and freezing temperatures. Floodwaters have overwhelmed wastewater treatment capacity at several refineries since 2005, resulting in more than 13 million gallons of toxic wastewater being dumped into neighborhood canals, lakes and waterways. Neighbors next to Murphy Oil in St. Bernard Parish are so used to oil in their canals after it rains that they joke it’s always “Cloudy with a chance of oil.” Power failures during flooding at refineries have also resulted in more than 500,000 pounds of chemicals being released to the atmosphere.

These accidents constitute serious chemical emergencies compounding the already high hazards and risks faced by communities in the path of both oil and gas infrastructure and natural disasters.

The impending waters from the Mississippi River will certainly flood low-lying communities with toxic runoff and leakage from refineries, petrochemical storage facilities, oil and gas wells, oil field waste pits and thousands of miles of pipelines located in those same areas. But the question remains, is the state prepared to handle such an emergency?

All week LABB staff members have been trying to get answers from the state’s refineries, the Emergency Planning Commissions for each affected parish, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The set of questions we have been posing are below:

  1. What are the specific precautions and preparedness activities that your facility is doing to protect public health during possible flooding?
  2. What is your facility doing to mitigate overflow of the wastewater treatment capacity/oil and water separator should this area of the facility flood? Where does the overflow go? What type of sampling will you be doing to monitor the water quality during possible flooding?
  3. How is your facility prepared to deal with possible power outages as a result of the flooding?
  4. Should the river continue to rise, what are your triggers for initiating a SAFE shutdown of the facility, not an emergency shutdown?

Here’s the information we’ve received thus far:

The Emergency Planning Commissions:

Thus far, not a single EPC representative has responded to our repeated telephone calls and email requests.

Refineries:

Among the refineries we contacted about these questions, the site communications manager for Motiva’s Norco refinery, Lily Galland said, “It is not our policy to share operations information. I can tell you that we have very detailed unit procedures and mandatory standards/regulations we follow for issues as it relates to weather-related incidents (hurricanes, flooding, etc). There are also procedures/standards that are followed for planned shutdowns as well as emergency shutdowns.”

When we expressed the necessity for sharing emergency plans with communities, Galland told us to contact LDEQ or the EPC for St. Charles Parish to access her facility’s emergency procedures.

Bill Day, spokesman for Valero Energy, told us the same thing he’s told Reuters, that they plan to raise up electrical equipment and any other machinery that can be lifted off the ground, and that they are checking generators to make sure they are functioning properly (though he noted they could not generate enough energy to power the entire facility).

Calls to Murphy Oil, Alon Refining in Krotz Springs and ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge and Chalmette Refining facilities have yet to be returned.

LDEQ:

A senior representative from the LDEQ forwarded our questions to the Louisiana Mid Continental Oil and Gas Association, a trade association for the industry. He paraphrased their response: “The refineries are not so concerned about flooding but they assure us that they have all the necessary precautions and procedures in place.”

According to LDEQ, refiners have been proactive in assuring government officials that there will be no fuel shortages as a result of the flooding.

After a lot of probing, we were told that three oil field waste operators will be impacted and are busy removing oil and other materials from their locations in the flood zone. There are certainly more than three oil field waste operators in the flood zone and there was no mention of the thousands of oil and gas wells in the area.

When asked what the LDEQ’s plans were for monitoring chemical contamination in the communities affected by the floodwaters, the representative responded that the agency would be doing aerial oversight and no random sampling. “We have to see the sheen from the plane before we sample,” we were told. The canopy of tree cover in the Atchafalaya Basin will certainly prevent the LDEQ from seeing the sheen from the air.

EPA:

Chris Ruhl, the on-scene incident coordinator for EPA Region 6, finally responded to our calls Friday. He explained that operators in the flood zone are draining oil from tanks and replacing the tanks with water so that they don’t float away. He also said operators are marking wells at the top of the structures so as to locate them in floodwaters.

When asked for EPA’s plan to monitor for chemical contamination, he said, “I do not have any plans as far as what EPA is going to do.” Inspires confidence, doesn’t it?

 

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One Response to Hell and High Water: Communities have a right to know about potential chemical accidents during flooding

  1. Pingback: Hell and High Water: Oil and gas wells and pits in the path of the flood | Louisiana Bucket Brigade's Blog

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