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SOURCE: BuzzFeed News

DATE: September 5, 2020

SNIP: Leaks and spills have become part and parcel of hurricanes that hit Texas and Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. A Reuters analysis found that in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s punishing rain in the Houston area, at least 22,000 barrels of oil, refined fuels, and chemicals were spilled across the state. That was in addition to millions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of tons of other toxic substances. While Harvey had a widespread effect on Texas, the environmental damage paled in comparison to Hurricane Katrina. Researchers estimate that there were as many as 200 releases of hazardous chemicals, petroleum, or natural gas in the wake of that storm coming ashore south of New Orleans.

John Pardue, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University, wrote in a piece for the Conversation about how the fire at BioLab [a chlorine plant which processes chlorine for swimming pools] may be just the tip of Hurricane Laura’s damage to the oil and petrochemical facilities. In that piece, Pardue points out that the storm’s strongest winds whipped through the Hackberry oil field, a marsh dotted with thousands of oil wells, storage tanks, and pipelines. Storage tanks have been known to be ripped from their moorings during hurricanes, releasing whatever toxins they had inside into the environment.

The Gulf Coast is home to a dense network of oil and gas refineries and pipelines and increasingly the booming petrochemical industry. And the industrialization is growing. Using state permitting data, the Environmental Integrity Project showed that between 2012 and 2018, regulators in Louisiana and Texas approved 74 oil, gas, and petrochemical projects within 70 miles of coastline. Many of the biggest projects coming online are in Calcasieu Parish, the county where Lake Charles and Mossville are located, and Cameron Parish, the county just south of Lake Charles that was almost entirely inundated by water during Hurricane Laura. But while regulators have been busy approving new projects in vulnerable areas, they have been unwilling to step up monitoring to protect the surrounding communities during disasters, activists said.

While Texas has made information about the pollutants released since Hurricane Laura available to the public, Louisiana residents are still largely in the dark. Few people think of Texas as a place that strictly regulates industry — except, maybe, in comparison to Louisiana. In Texas, companies must report big emissions events within 24 hours. They must also report how many pounds of pollutants they released. That’s how people learned that at least 4 million pounds of pollutants and greenhouse gases were released in the run-up to Hurricane Laura as plants in East Texas conducted emergency shutdowns ahead of the storm. Those plants emitted well above the allowed amounts of pollutants like nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds in an effort to prevent accidents like when the Arkema chemical plant outside of Houston exploded and burst into flames during Hurricane Harvey. In Louisiana, Environmental advocates say they only know that more than 50 sites released pollutants in recent days. There hasn’t been a full public accounting of what was released or how many pounds of toxins were emitted; the state doesn’t require companies to report either data point.

The Biolab facility that caught fire, for example, did not report the amount of emissions emitted since Hurricane Laura hit. If that factory was in Texas that would have been required.

In 2019, BioLab, the plant that caught fire during Hurricane Laura, was found in violation of the Clean Water Act for releasing over 90 times the allowed amount of hexachlorobenzene into area waters. The EPA says that hexachlorobenzene is a probable human carcinogen. In all the facility has reported dumping chemicals into the nearby bayou and river 145 times since last September, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

BioLab is far from an anomaly. A new ethane plant in Westlake, a joint venture between Lotte Chemical of South Korea and Houston-based Westlake Chemical, has reported consistently releasing more than the allowed amount of the same chemical into area waterways since opening last year. According to EPA enforcement data, that plant is in significant noncompliance with the Clean Water Act. Not far away, the South African–owned chemical complex that led to the leveling of much of Mossville was dinged in 2017 for releasing nearly five times the allowed amount of mercury.

“With a storm surge, you have this sediment sludge that gets moved around,” Subra said. “After Katrina in the greater New Orleans area, some people didn’t clean the sediment sludge from their property. And then they call me up after the grass has grown and they’ve fixed up their house and they say every time I mow the lawn I don’t feel well. That’s the sediment sludge that the lawnmower is throwing up into the air and they are inhaling it, so then we’re talking about long-term exposure.”