The Gulf Coast is one of the most vulnerable parts of the country to extreme weather, and is also home to over 40 percent of the total U.S. petroleum refining capacity. As our energy infrastructure continues to age, it is becoming clear that this is a recipe for disaster. A new report, Lessons from Hurricane Isaac, released by the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC), is shedding light on the extent of this problem. GMC found that many preventable problems at coal, chemical and oil facilities during and after the 2012 hurricane resulted in extremely high levels of air and water pollution — posing a serious threat to the region’s residents, particularly those in low-income communities and communities of color.
The report, prepared in preparation of the 2013 hurricane season, serves as a case study on the vulnerability of fossil fuel and petrochemical infrastructure to the severe tropical weather that repeatedly hits the Gulf Region. The paper analyzes official reports submitted to government regulatory and emergency response agencies, and compiles findings from GMC’s independent monitoring during Hurricane Isaac’s aftermath. During and in the aftermath of Isaac, a total of 130 fossil fuel and petrochemical accidents were reported to the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center as a direct result of the storm. These spills released harmful chemicals, including recognized neurotoxins and carcinogens.
“We all knew this hurricane was coming — it wasn’t a surprise,” Meredith Dowling, Gulf Program Director of SouthWings, a GMC member, said of the findings. “Yet during post-storm overflights our volunteer pilots saw sheen on the floodwaters near refineries. Near coal terminals they spotted dark streaks cutting across farmland that appeared to be from coal contaminated runoff. Offshore and in coastal wetlands they found leaking and partially sunken petroleum infrastructure,” she stated.
Among the report’s key findings is that operators used the weather as an excuse for the spills, despite advance warnings of the storm’s path and intensity. The report cites the practice of refineries operating during the storm as part of their negligence: “Motiva Norco Refinery in St. Charles Parish blamed the weather for its pollution, while the Valero refinery next door shut down in advance of the hurricane and reported no incident.” Inadequate levees also allowed contaminated water to spill into surrounding wetlands, waterways, and communities and storage capacity proved insufficient to handle stormwater and wastewater.
As climate-fueled extreme weather becomes part of the new normal for much of the country, this case study serves as a call to examine the vulnerability of our energy infrastructure as a whole. According to a report by the Department of Energy, about half of the nation’s 2.4 million miles of oil and gas pipelines were built in the 1950s and 1960s, creating the challenge of retrofitting this existing infrastructure with modern technology to improve resiliency. The report states that “aging infrastructure is more susceptible than newer assets to the hurricane-related hazards of storm surge, flooding, and extreme winds.”
This is particularly of concern to low-income communities and communities of color, which have historically seen industrial sites, such as refineries and chemical plants, placed in their neighborhoods. As a result, these communities are disproportionately exposed to chemicals, both from current industrial pollution, but also by legacy chemicals present in soils from prior industrial use. In a study of 15 petrochemical refineries conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Southern California, more than half the population at risk from air toxins were people of color. However, the extent of this unequal exposure varies greatly by region. For example, the population exposed to releases from ExxonMobil’s refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is 78 percent minority (75.3 percent black), and 31.1 percent low-income. Given these realities, the risk of exposure to these toxins is heightened during extreme weather events.
While there are rules and regulations to prevent and respond to chemical and oil spills, and even strengthen our energy infrastructure, it is evident that industry leaders must do more to protect communities against these hazards. “The oil industry makes billions of dollars every year,” said Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a GMC member. “Ordinary citizens are responsible, we get prepared. The oil, chemical and coal industries should, too.”
Tracey Ross is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.