Laura shows pollution mounts in Gulf Coast

The security of petrochemical plants during hurricanes comes into question even as some predict more powerful and frequent storms.

Hurricanes Laura and Harvey set records for fastest and strongest intensification for the Gulf Coast from 35 miles per hour to 150 miles per hour winds, also both initiated significant releases of pollutants.

Laura’s are estimated at about 4 million pounds and Hurricane Harvey had over twice that amount. Many will remember 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused French-owned Arkema plant in Crosby, to lose power, igniting a fire and produce a large pillar of acrid, black smoke; residents within a 1.5 mile radius were evacuated.

This time most of Texas was spared although Beaumont and Port Arthur plants had to prepare for and shut down before the storms. Louisiana was hit by intensive winds, flooding, and a chemical fire was recorded in Westlake.

The shut down of a plant quickly often requires the release of compounds and gases in excess of what a plant is allowed in a year. Plants filed notices to regulators and a single methanol production plant accounted for most of the pollutants released. A burn off of 3.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide was accomplished before workers could leave, spills be avoided, and even worse emissions allowed.

Texas discharged over 13 million pounds of toxic chemicals into waterways in 2007. More than 87,000 pounds of those toxoids were cancer-causing chemicals like arsenic, chromium and lead.

The Environmental Protection Agency declares overall, hazardous impacts to air quality from Hurricane Laura in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area have been limited. After screening 21 of 28 facilities that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ referred to EPA, ASPECT made two detections, both of isoprene. Only one of these detections, at 1.55 parts per million, exceeded TCEQ’s AMCV of 1.4 parts per million. Both detections were west of Port Arthur. Results from air monitoring were reported above the detection limit at two locations of 84 for total volatile organic compounds. The detections were temporary and do not seem to indicate a contaminant plume.

With the plant ablaze in the background alarms and the governor’s warning to turn off their air conditioners, seal their homes and stay indoors, was not quite as reassuring as the EPA Dallas office. Early Thursday a BioLab plant with an unknown amount of chlorine began to decompose, it ignited. A small crew from BioLab tried to extinguish the flames before calling state police for help shortly before 10 a.m.

Chlorine gas can be toxic and cause blistering of the skin, burning sensations in the nose and throat and respiratory distress. Local fire crews rushed to the scene, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality hurriedly installed air-quality monitors, and the Environmental Protection Agency got a plane to monitor the situation from the air. The fire had been extinguished by Thursday night but a second one erupted, and the radius of the shelter-in-place order was expanded.

Damage resulting from Hurricane Laura’s most illustrious example, where petrochemical plants, Superfund sites, refineries, oil and gas wells, and a network of pipelines are found. While some major oil producers, including Exxon, denied being damaged by the storm, other companies were still assessing damage.

The Gulf Coast is plagued by steadily increasing runoff pollution from industry, roads, agriculture, and septic tanks. Urban development near the Gulf has only made this problem worse.

Just under three quarters of the nation’s chemical production occurs within the Gulf Coast, which has led to multiple chemical and petroleum spills within the last decade.

Many municipalities don’t safely dispose of pesticides, acids, paints, and solvents, they wind up in the Gulf Coast, too.

Since the 1950s, most of the sea grass beds in Galveston Bay have been lost, damaging marine life habitats. Agricultural runoff and septic system drainage contribute to excessive algae growth that shades the grass and sucks oxygen from the water.

More than 25,000 acres of freshwater wetlands around Galveston Bay were lost due to development in recent years. The bay loses more than 2,500 acres of freshwater wetlands per year.