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Science and Environment

'Ticking Time Bombs': Residents Kept In The Dark About Risks To La.'s Chemical Plants During Storms

A storage tank in a field after Hurricane Delta.
A storage tank in a field after Hurricane Delta.

An analysis by WWNO/WRKF and Southerly reveals worst-case scenarios for toxic air pollutant releases or chemical explosions by 30 facilities in Louisiana.

This story was published in partnership with .

When Christine Bennett tried to return to her house in Mossville, on the outskirts of Lake Charles, after Hurricane Laura plowed through in August, roads were blocked around BioLab. A fire at the pool chemical manufacturer burned for three days after the storm. “They stopped us from getting to our house,” she said. “While we were sitting there trying to get through our stomachs started to hurt.”

Chlorine gas was detected around the BioLab facility in Westlake at a level that could cause notable irritation and temporary changes in lung function, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Bennett believes that was what made her family feel sick.

Chemical plants emit more toxic air pollution when they shut down ahead of storms coming ashore. And when hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast, which is overrun with chemical and fossil fuel facilities, pollution events often follow. That puts fenceline communities — neighborhoods directly adjacent to industrial facilities that are affected by its operations — at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals and explosions.

The 2020 hurricane season, which officially ended last week, brought a record breaking number of tropical storms. It’s unclear whether climate change will lead to more hurricanes, but a growing body of research shows storms are becoming more intense, increasing the likelihood of a double disaster: a storm followed by toxic spills or explosions. Identifying at-risk communities is difficult because that information is hidden behind a series of bureaucratic hurdles.

Southerly and WWNO/WRKF identified the 30 facilities in Louisiana’s coastal zone with the most toxic chemicals stored on site, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. Over two months, we navigated a burdensome administrative process to view what each facility filed with the EPA as the worst-case scenario for a toxic air pollutant release or chemical explosion. We found 10 scenarios that would result in toxic gases blowing 25 miles offsite. The most vulnerable cities have predominantly Black populations.

Facilities that keep large amounts of toxic or flammable chemicals on site are required to submit risk management plans, or RMPs, to the EPA every five years outlining worst-case scenarios for releases and the area and approximate number of people who would be vulnerable. About 12,300 facilities in the U.S. had active RMPs in 2017, according to the agency.

The chemical industry sector says access to risk management plans should be guarded because of the potential for the information to be used in a terrorist attack. To view the plans, residents must book an appointment at a federal reading room seven days ahead of time by leaving a message on a Department of Justice phone line. Paper copies are mailed to the reading room and residents can only take handwritten notes — no photos or scans — on the plans in the company of a U.S. Marshal. The two federal reading rooms in Louisiana are in Baton Rouge and Shreveport. Only 10 RMPs can be viewed by an individual per month.

Southerly and WWNO viewed the RMPs for the 30 coastal facilities with the highest amount of toxic chemicals stored on site in the 21 southern parishes that make up Louisiana’s coastal zone. Donaldsonville — located in the industrial corridor of Louisiana — was within the area of impact for a worst-case release for nine of the 30 coastal chemical facilities examined, making it the most vulnerable city in our analysis. Gonzales, about 15 miles north, was within the vulnerability zone for eight facilities. Donaldsonville and Gonzales are predominantly Black towns.

A pre-2001 copy of BioLab's risk management plan, before the plans became closed off by administrative hurdles.
Credit Document courtesy of Wilma Subra, with LEAN.
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A pre-2001 copy of BioLab's risk management plan, before the plans became closed off by administrative hurdles.

Populations surrounding facilities with enough toxic storage onsite to warrant risk management plans are 11% more likely to be communities of color, 10% more likely to be low income, and 3% more likely to be linguistically isolated, according to the EPA.

Louisiana’s metro areas are also at risk of a toxic chemical release or explosion. Baton Rouge and New Orleans were within the vulnerability zones of four coastal facilities each. According to a 2014 report by the Center for Effective Government, 61% of Louisiana children go to school within a vulnerability zone.

Each facility’s plan had at least two possible scenarios of a toxic or flammable chemical release. Of the more than 60 scenarios we reviewed, the one that would impact the greatest number of south Louisiana residents was the Rubicon facility in Geismar, which uses phosgene to produce polyurethane for spray insulation and cushioning. Over the past five years, the facility has had three small phosgene gas releases that injured workers and three releases that necessitated a community shelter-in-place. Inhalation of phosgene can cause severe respiratory problems, including pulmonary edema, pulmonary emphysema, and death, according to the EPA.

In its risk management plan, Rubicon reported that under the worst-case scenario, 10,000 pounds of phosgene gas could be released, which would impact 890,000 people — about 19% of Louisiana’s population. The phosgene gas could blow 25 miles offsite in any direction, which could reach Baton Rouge and impact schools, residences, hospitals, and airports.

Rubicon’s general manager, Mark Dearman, said the conditions required by the EPA to create the worst-case scenarios are unrealistic. They assume there are no prevailing winds, so the chemical escapes in a circular pattern around the facility, and that a release occurs uninterrupted for 10 minutes as though “nobody is even in the plant.”

Ascension Parish officials are familiar with the hazardous chemicals at Rubicon, Dearman said. “The chemicals that you find up and down the river are very similar in nature,” he said. “We’re all very linked together as suppliers to one another.”

While Rubicon has had small releases of phosgene, the plant is unlikely to have the size of release identified in the worst-case scenario because the chemical is used in a process shortly after it’s made, Dearman said. Pipes that carry phosgene in its liquid form are inspected annually and an emergency scrubber can be used to neutralize remaining phosgene in preparation for storms.

Southerly and WWNO/WRKF’s analysis found that chlorine gas, released from BioLab after Hurricane Laura, was the most likely toxic chemical to trigger a worst-case scenario among the 30 coastal industrial facilities examined. Exposure to chlorine gas can cause bronchitis, asthma, and swelling of the lungs, according to the EPA.

Six companies with facilities in our analysis responded about their RMPs. Shell, which owns four plants in our analysis, would not answer questions for this story. “The safety of our people, the surrounding community and the environment remain our top priorities,” spokeswoman Rochelle Touchard wrote in an email. “All of our operations adhere to strict Federal, state and local regulations.”

Westlake Geismar spokesman Chip Swearngan said the company, which manufactures chlorine and PVC, coordinates its emergency response procedures, processes, and systems with the Ascension Parish Local Emergency Planning Committee. “Westlake Geismar has emergency response procedures covering severe weather scenarios,” he said, adding that they are reviewed annually. Representatives for Phillips 66, Occidental Chemical and Honeywell Geismar said that safety of employees and the community were a priority and that they communicate with local officials about emergency planning.

Public access to this information has been restricted from public access since shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, said Louisiana Chemical Association President and CEO, Greg Bowser. “This information is purposely kept out of the public eye to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands and being used to engineer another such attack,” he said. “As the country saw first-hand the destruction caused from the ill intent of others, it was deemed a matter of national security to keep the off-site consequence analysis information in the hands of only the most critical personnel.”

In a 2016 public comment on the Risk Management Program, the former Louisiana Chemical Association president, Dan Borne, wrote that analyzing safer chemical processes is costly and best applied during the design stage. He said Louisiana chemical plants have learned from accidents at other facilities, such as the 2013 explosion at the Williams Olefins Plant in Geismar, Louisiana, which killed two workers and injured 167 others. Sharing more information with emergency responders about worst-case scenarios would not help responders to better understand the risks of potential releases, but would “overwhelm” them, Borne wrote.

But a lack of access to information about the risks posed by toxic and flammable chemicals stored at industrial facilities puts communities, emergency first responders, and workers at risk, said Emma Cheuse, a staff attorney with the environmental law organization Earthjustice.

Hurricane Katrina knocked a storage tank off its base at Murphy Oil’s Meraux refinery, spilling one million gallons of oil. The oil contaminated about 1,700 homes in St. Bernard Parish. More than a decade later, Magellan Midstream’s tank farm, near Galena Park, Texas, leaked 460,000 gallons of gasoline when Hurricane Harvey flooded the facility. The EPA estimated the spill released 282 tons of combined air toxics, including more than six tons of benzene, a known carcinogen. When the storm caused flooding at the Arkema facility in Crosby, Texas, more than 20 emergency responders were evaluated at a hospital after they inhaled smoke from peroxides that decomposed and caught fire. Seven of the first responders sued Arkema for failing to notify them of the dangers posed by the pollutant.

Many of the facilities we examined in this analysis were in the direct path of Hurricanes Laura and Delta.

“Communities need this information and they don't have access to it,” Cheuse said. “You have communities that are already overburdened by many different sources. That can turn into a ticking time bomb in a hurricane.”

Phillips 66 Lake Charles refinery. Flares and repair cranes can be seen shortly after a hurricane blew through the area.
Credit Healthy Gulf
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Phillips 66 Lake Charles refinery. Flares and repair cranes can be seen shortly after a hurricane blew through the area.

Many residents of Mossville moved away after the South African company Sasol offered them buyouts to make way for a massive chemical complex in 2014. But some residents, like Bennett, did not want to leave the historic Black community, which was founded by survivors of slavery in the 1790s.

Bennett owns two acres of land where she wanted to build a women’s shelter. But the encroachment of industry has kept that plan from becoming reality. “They took that dream from me,” Bennett said.

She worries about the long-term health impacts of breathing in pollution. “Thank God that this BioLab thing happened and we were evacuated then,” she said. “But if it would have happened on a day when there wasn't a storm, they would do their little shelter in place. Lord, that’s a joke. You can close the windows. You can't close the cracks.”

Mossville would be vulnerable in the worst-case toxic chemical release for six of the coastal industrial facilities examined in the analysis by Southerly and WWNO/WRKF. Without adequate information about the risks, Bennett doesn’t know the safest evacuation route. “We worry about an explosion all the time in that area,” Bennett said. “You just have to pray that it never happens.”

The Obama administration initiated changes to the Risk Management Program to make chemical hazard information more accessible to communities and first responders after a 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed 15 people, including 10 volunteer firefighters. At that time, the EPA said making information in RMPs more accessible would improve emergency preparedness and residents’ understanding of how facilities addressed potential risks. “EPA also believes that the revisions will likely contribute to the prevention of future chemical accidents,” the agency wrote. But the Trump administration stopped the regulations from taking effect in 2017.

Cheuse from Earthjustice sued the EPA for delaying the regulations from taking effect on behalf of grassroots environmental organizations throughout the U.S., including Louisiana Bucket Brigade. The U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. ruled the delay was illegal, forcing the Trump administration to take action. In 2019, the EPA rolled back significant parts of the rule, abandoning requirements for facilities to seek a third party audit, perform root cause analysis after major chemical accidents, and to consider safer technologies and alternative procedures.

Of the 30 coastal industrial facilities examined by WWNO/WRKF and Southerly, 22 identified hurricanes as a major hazard. However, most of the facilities did not consider a passive mitigation measure, such as dikes or berms that could contain substances and minimize exposure, in their risk management plan for the worst-case scenario that impacted the greatest number of people. Mike Hockey, spokesman for Honeywell’s Geismar plant that manufactures chemicals used to make refrigerants, high octane gasoline and foam insulation, said the plant “was designed to withstand hurricane force winds” and shuts down process units when the wind reaches 50 mph.

Paul Orum, a consultant on chemical facility safety and security, said the industry has created a sort of “know nothing, do nothing” environment in which they don’t disclose the risks of large amounts of toxic and flammable chemicals kept on site and don’t do enough to prevent disasters. While the chemical industry has created best practices for hurricanes, such as securing tanks and building dikes, the regulatory requirements have not evolved with climate change.

“It certainly makes sense for the regulations to catch up to the reality of increasing strength storms and floods,” Orum said.

Ways to reduce another double disaster have been identified but aren’t required, said John Pardue, a professor of environmental engineering at Louisiana State University. For example, chemical storage tanks could be better secured to prevent them from getting pushed off their base during hurricanes.

Several major pollution events along the Gulf Coast have resulted from giant storage tanks floating off in flood water and crashing to the ground as the water receded. The size of the tanks makes them extremely buoyant when they are not full of liquid. “It’s like trying to hold a basketball down in a pool,” Pardue said.

Some companies top off tanks that aren’t full, making them less likely to float away. “The idea there is that the more chemical there is the heavier the tank is and the less it’s going to float around,” he said. “But I don't know what percentage of them actually do it.”

Posts that stop the tanks from moving side-to-side, but allow them to float up and down could also prevent this kind of spill, Pardue said. But these measures are not mandatory. Some companies are also finding new technologies that don’t require storage of large amounts of toxic chemicals. “There’s no regulation geared to emergencies,” he said. “There are people who don’t sleep at night because of this.”

Earthjustice filed another lawsuit against the EPA in Dec. 2019 for its rollback of the Obama-era improvements to the Risk Management Program. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The United Steelworkers, New York, and a number of municipal governments have also joined.

Even if the Obama administration regulations are put back in place, there is more that could be done to prevent another double disaster, said Terry McGuire, a senior legislative representative with Earthjustice. “What we’re defending here were steps in the right direction,” McGuire said. “But this was not a robust or radical rewrite.”

Earthjustice will push the administration under President-elect Joe Biden to make strengthening the law a priority. “There’s a lot of ways to bring about reform. It doesn't make sense that you have to go to an EPA reading room for this information,” McGuire said. “It’s time for that change. It’s unacceptable and that’s what we’re fighting for.”

Sara Sneath is an award-winning environmental reporter based in New Orleans. Email her tips at saraksneath@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @sarasneath.

Michael Petroni, a Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, assisted with the TRI analysis for this story. Carly Berlin, with Southerly, Paul Braun, with WRKF, Sheehan Moore, with Healthy Gulf, and Naomi Yoder, with Healthy Gulf, assisted with the data collection for this story.

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