Hurricanes and the Chemical Industry: Houston Chronicle Explores the Hazards We’re Facing

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Photo: Melissa Phillip, MBO

The New York Times discussed yesterday how prepared the chemical industry is for natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey. Today the Houston Chronicle picks up on that theme today, focusing on the other end of that problem — how the hundreds of chemical facilities in the Gulf that shut down in response to Harvey can start up safely, and how much government oversight we can expect.

Mark Collette and Matt Dempsey,  the intrepid Chronicle reporters who wrote the amazing Chemical Breakdown series last year, note in today’s article that not only is the start-up process highly hazardous,but “more than a dozen Texas chemical and refining plants reported damaged storage tanks, ruptured containment systems and malfunctioning pressure relief valves as a result of Hurricane Harvey.”

The flooding and the shutdowns have caused an environmental disaster themselves. Chemical plants have released “nearly 1 million pounds of seven especially dangerous pollutants during flaring and chemical spills,” some of which are known to cause cancer.  EPA is also investigating a benzene plume in the area of Valero’s refinery. Benzene is also a carcinogen.

But more worrisome is how the plants will restart their systems safely and who will oversee that process.  As we’ve discussed here before, chemical plant and refinery start-ups are highly hazardous processes even under the best of circumstances. What we’re seeing now, however, are levels of flooding and equipment damage that no one has ever experienced before.  In addition, the plant owners will be under considerable economic pressure to start back up as quickly as possible.  This raises anxiety among industry observers, as I point out in the Chronicle piece:

“Will (companies) be offering bonuses and other incentives to speed the restart?” Barab asked. “How many normal procedures will be loosened because it’s an emergency situation? How much overtime will workers be required to work and what kind of fatigue factors will they be dealing with? Will chemical exposures be overlooked because it’s an emergency? How are they going to deal with safety issues if some instruments … will not work prior to restart?”

Who Will Oversee The Process?

And, the next question, of course, is who will oversee the hazardous startup process?

OSHA is seriously understaffed under the best of conditions with slightly more than 200 staff nationwide that have sufficient training in process safety management, the program that keeps refineries from experiencing uncontrolled releases of hazardous chemicals or explosions.  The Trump administration is requesting a flat budget for OSHA next year (which comes out to a budget cut), and Republicans in the House of Representatives are calling for a significant cut in OSHA’s enforcement budget.

OSHA has also announced that it will be suspending “programmed” or “pro-active” inspections in the area in order to focus on the safety of recovery workers. While this might make sense under normal circumstances, it is highly questionable whether it makes sense now given the potentially hazardous startups happening in hundreds of plants in the area. OSHA has materials on its website focused on the safety of recovery workers, but nothing providing information for chemical plant operators about the hazards of startup after flooding.

EPA, meanwhile, has even fewer chemical plant experts and is facing even more drastic budget cuts that OSHA.

The Chemical Safety Board sent out an alert, and will be investigating the Arkema incident, and may develop some interesting recommendations, but their report won’t be issued for months or longer.

Meanwhile, EPA’s Pruitt has delayed the agency’s new Risk Management Program regulation, and who knows what the fate of OSHA’s revised Process Safety Management standard is in this anti-regulatory administration. I can find nothing EPA’s website concern chemical plant or refinery start-ups, although EPA did announce that it was issuing No Action Assurance letters to refineries in order ” to help address fuel shortages.” That means that EPA will not be enforcing certain regulations. I’m not sure at this point which regulations those are.

So, as I ask and answer in the Chronicle: “Who is going to oversee any of this?” Barab asked. “The answer is no one.”

What Does the Future Hold?

What does the future hold? Nothing good.

The first problem is what kind of damage the flooding caused that might not be immediately evident.   Collette and Dempsey note that  “A 2009 analysis of multiple chemical incident databases worldwide by researchers at the University of Bologna in Italy found storage tanks, pipes and compressors were the most likely to be damaged in flood events. And major releases were more likely to occur when floodwaters were more than 3 feet high.”

And, of course, Harvey isn’t the last catastrophic hurricane the Gulf Coast will see.  There are three Hurricanes headed for the US right now. Although it looks like Irma will miss the Gulf Coast, even areas of the country that don’t have the kind of chemical plant and refinery concentration that we see in the Gulf, there are chemical storage tanks, tank farms and smaller chemical plants (that can cause huge damage) all over the United States.

And, as Sam Mannan, director of a center that studies chemical process safety at Texas A&M university, points out in the Chronicle article, “The effect of natural disasters – particularly flooding – on hazardous facilities didn’t draw much attention until the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster brought on by a tsunami in Japan in 2011.”

And longer term doesn’t look much better if government and industry can’t get their act together:

“We’re going to see more extreme weather events hitting the Gulf with more frequency, and both government and business are going to have to deal with that,” Barab said.

Every major storm will challenge the disaster plans for facilities throughout the area. Not every plan will pass that test.

Barab questioned why Arkema hadn’t done more to protect its refrigeration and power systems when Houston hospitals in the Texas Medical Center had done so after Tropical Storm Allison caused what, up to that point, had been unimaginable flooding. He fears too many plants don’t account for true worst cases.

Stay tuned.

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