Lessons From Hurricane Isaac – Will the Gulf Coast Fare Better in 2013?

In response to the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) report “Lessons from Hurricane Isaac: Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Facilities Still Not Storm Ready,” an industry trade group issued a response challenging some of the report’s premises. On August 9, Energize LA, a public relations site operated by the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA) posted a blog entry calling the report “Weird Science.” Their critique focused on three main areas, which they called “false justifications” for the report:

“Hurricanes are entirely predictable; Isaac was not a major storm; and refineries have no obvious reason to remain operational during weather events”

– “Weird Science: How ‘Lessons From Hurricane Isaac’ Is Flawed From Before the Start,” EnergizeLa.com

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Predictability of Hurricanes: Hurricanes are hundreds of miles across and relatively slow moving. While predicting the precise details of a storm is subject to many variables, the areas at risk are known well in advance of landfall and state regulators even call around to make sure facilities have implemented their storm preparedness protocols. By Sunday, August 26, the National Hurricane Center was predicting the storm was turning toward Louisiana and would make landfall in 2-3 days. They warned, as they do on all prediction maps, “hazardous condition can occur outside of the cone.” As Energize LA themselves noted in their discussion of this point, the National Weather Service advised on August 24th, “[i]t is important not to focus on the exact track due to the uncertainties in the forecast and the fact that Isaac has a large area of tropical-storm-force winds associated with it.” Did operators read this statement as a warning to prepare for the storm regardless of the predicted track? Or as uncertainty whether the storm would impact the Gulf Coast at all?

However, more than the short-term prediction of an individual storm event, the GMC report emphasizes the fact that hurricanes are “an annual occurrence in the Gulf Region (pg. 3).” Our report also stresses that:

“Gulf industrial facilities continue to show disturbing susceptibility to damage from the annual barrage of strong, yet predictable, summer storms, with Gulf Coast residents and the environment repeatedly paying the price.” (pg. 9)

Modeling probable wind, rainfall, and flood events that could impact an area or industrial facility is an advanced science rooted in meteorology, geomorphology, and statistics. The repeated incidence of pollution associated with storms suggests that the standards to which storm defenses are built may not be adequate to protect the health of the people and ecosystems surrounding these facilities. If they are adequate, then why does pollution occur routinely when storms hit?

Perhaps one explanation is that predicting the “storm of the century” is limited to past weather events, from which future probability is extrapolated. However, if the scientific consensus on global climate change is correct, then past weather records will be insufficient to predict frequency and intensity of storms, and low-lying lands will be more at risk as sea level rises. If this is the explanation for poor prediction of weather-related hazards over the long-term, then when will industry start to incorporate these risks into protecting their facilities and their neighbors?

Severity of Hurricane Isaac: Even if one considers that Isaac’s storm surge flooding was anomalous for a Category 1 storm, many questions remain. Why did some of the pollution reports have little or nothing to do with storm surge and flooding? GMC member organizations found reports of air pollution from malfunctioning gas recovery units and operators exceeding their variances trying to run flares against hurricane force winds, while other members documented upset railroad tankers that could have been moved before the storm arrived. Furthermore, recognizing there are many variables to the impact of a storm, how many hurricanes have set some kind of record for storm surge, rainfall per hour, cumulative rainfall, peak wind speed, sustained wind speed, resulting flooding, etc.? Returning to the premise that hurricanes are an annual occurrence on the Gulf Coast, was Hurricane Isaac really that anomalous?

To our knowledge, “Lessons from Hurricane Isaac” is the first comprehensive report on cumulative pollution from fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities in the wake of a specific storm event. If Isaac was an anomaly, future studies will show the difference. GMC is concerned, however, that the Energize LA critique of our study made no suggestion that operators would try to do better the next time the Gulf is assailed by a storm.

Refinery Operations During Storms: Our report, “Lessons from Hurricane Isaac,” did not attempt to speculate on the reason for maintaining operations into the storm. We merely documented the reported successes or failures of refineries to balance the “moral dilemma” they claim to face; that is, deciding between staying open to fuel hospital and evacuation efforts, or shutting down. It should be noted that four of the six refineries examined did shut down at some point, but not all of the pollution was directly related to the storm. For example, ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Refinery started a controlled shutdown on August 27, the day before Isaac made landfall. However, the refinery released over 58 tons of sulfur dioxide, not because of the hurricane, but because the flare gas recovery system was not working.

Controlled shutdowns are a part of operating a refinery, and hurricanes are a part of operating in the Gulf Coast region. Because this is a routine challenge faced by operators, are there ways to mitigate the risk of operating and yet maintain the fuel supply to critical infrastructure and evacuating citizens? How much would it cost to mitigate the “catch 22” situation faced annually by operators who make decisions that impact public safety, the health of the Gulf Coast, and the safety of their workers?

Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Facilities Still Not Storm Ready

On August 6, five environmental organizations comprising the Gulf Monitoring Consortium announced their findings from a review of pollution reported from petrochemical and fossil fuel processing facilities during and immediately after Hurricane Isaac. Based self-reporting by “responsible parties” to state and federal authorities, GMC members found operators blamed the storm for at least the following pollution from their facilities:

341 ,044 gallons of oil, chemicals, and untreated waste-water

192.3 tons of gases and other materials (354,819 pounds)

12.6 million gallons of untreated “process area water” from one overwhelmed facility 

After an additional review of pre-storm aerial surveys; post-storm monitoring efforts in the air, on the ground, and in the water; and analysis of satellite and aerial survey imagery, the Consortium concludes:

Substantial amounts of pollution were released into the environment due to damage from the only hurricane to make landfall on the Gulf Coast in 2012.

Harmful chemicals, including recognized neurotoxins and carcinogens, were released due to damage from the storm.

 Despite advance warning of the storm path and intensity, operators used the weather as an excuse for polluting.

Fossil fuel infrastructure in the Gulf Region is vulnerable to predictable tropical weather events.

Oil from the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster continues to wash ashore. 

Download the full report: Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Facilities Still Not Storm Ready 

Updated August 7, 2013 10:40 am

Below: Image highlights from GMC monitoring trips and Investigations – photos may be reproduced so long as credit is attributed to the individual or organizations named.