Flooded homes and flaring

Homes near Norco, Louisiana are still surrounded by flood water as chemical refineries continue to flare the day after Hurricane Ida hit south Louisiana on Monday, August 30, 2021.?

For days after Hurricane Ida, Chandra Straw’s New Orleans neighborhood was choked by waves of thick, black smoke. She stopped going outside, preferring the dark and stifling heat of her home, one of thousands that lost power after the 2021 storm. She shut the windows and stuffed blankets under the doors, but the fumes crept in, eventually forcing her to do what Ida’s winds and torrential rains hadn’t.

“That’s when we had to evacuate,” she said. “We could not breathe.”

Across the Mississippi from Straw’s Algiers home, the blackouts had triggered emergency flares at the Chalmette Refinery, a collection of pipelines, storage tanks and smokestacks that sprawls along a mile of riverbank. The flames, which ease the buildup of flammable gases when power is lost, roared for two weeks, releasing an unknown quantity of sulfur dioxide and other toxic chemicals.

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Chandra Straw and her dog, Tuna, walk along the Mississippi River near her home in Algiers across from the refineries in Chalmette on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

It could have been worse. According to the refinery’s own risk assessments, a hurricane, flood or tornado could spark a disaster that no corner of the New Orleans metro area would be safe from. In the refinery’s “worst case” scenario – which the plant’s operators stress is extremely unlikely to occur – an accident unleashes 360 tons of hydrofluoric acid, a fast-moving and potentially lethal gas that could reach anywhere within a 25-mile radius.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to estimate the chances such a nightmare could materialize. But here and across much of south Louisiana, the odds that a chemical plant could spawn a lesser disaster are significant.

The Chalmette Refinery is just one of more than 740 sites in the state that both house toxic chemicals and are at risk from extreme weather, according to a new analysis by The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.

122722 Chalmette Refinery disaster radius

Chalmette Refinery risk zone: PBF Energy estimates more than 880,000 people living within a 25-mile radius of its refinery in Chalmette could be harmed by toxic gasses during a ‘worst-case scenario’ that could involve a hurricane or flooding.?

Nearly 1.2 million Louisianans – a quarter of the state’s population – live within a mile of such a facility, the analysis using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Census and the First Street Foundation shows. First Street, a nonprofit group, uses rainfall, elevation, storm predictions and other data to produce flood models that are often used by the federal government.

The at-risk population is concentrated between the Gulf Coast and Interstate 10. It encompasses the state’s two largest metropolitan areas, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and the industrial corridor between them, which environmental advocates have long called “Cancer Alley.”

Neither state nor federal regulators require facilities to take specific precautions to ensure floodwaters and storms will not allow chemicals to escape.

The analysis highlights dangers that have been long ignored by industry and government leaders, said Rob Verchick, a Loyola University law professor and former EPA policy advisor.

“What these findings reflect are a national problem that the government and others have known about for a long time and haven't done anything about,” said Verchick, who reviewed the analysis.


Louisiana chemical facilities at risk of flooding

Plants with dangerous chemicals are at risk of flooding during severe storms. This map shows the location of those facilities.

To get detailed information about a specific area, zoom in or search for a ZIP Code. To get information about the risk faced by specific facilities, click on the individual site.

The facilities shown all are at risk of flooding of 9 inches or more. The circles in the zoomed-in map show a 1-mile radius around each facility. An actual chemical release could impact an area greater or less than that area.


Nearly 90% of all Louisiana facilities that house toxic chemicals are at risk of “major,” “severe” or “extreme” flooding, according to maps produced by First Street. That means during intense storms with a 1% chance of occurring each year, there could be at least 10 inches of flooding in the surrounding quarter-mile. In the most concerning cases, those storms could lead to flooding of 3 feet or higher.

More than 54% of the population of West Baton Rouge Parish lives within a mile of a facility at risk of major flooding. In St. Charles, about half the population is under similar risk, while more than 40% of the people in St. Bernard and Morehouse parishes are in the same situation. In Jefferson Parish, about 154,000 people – more than a third of the parish’s population — live near one of 62 facilities deemed to be at risk of more than 10 inches of water during an intense storm.

Unequal peril

The risks are substantial for all demographic groups, but they are not shared equally.

Black Louisianians are nearly twice as likely to live near a toxic facility at extreme risk of flooding as White residents, the analysis found. About one in three Black residents live near a toxic facility at extreme risk of flooding, compared to about one in five White residents, the analysis found.

Nearly 40% of people in the poorest areas of the state, where the median income is less than $30,000 a year, live near at least one facility at major risk of flooding. Nearly half of that group is near two or more such facilities.

060423 chemical facility race chart

By comparison, 18% of the households in the wealthiest parts of the state — where the median income is more than $75,000 a year – live near a facility at risk of flooding, and less than one third of that group lives near two or more.

The analysis underscores dangerous inequities that have long plagued Black communities in the South, said Robert Bullard, a professor of environmental policy at Texas Southern University who is considered the father of the environmental justice movement.

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Robert Taylor, right, at his home in Reserve which is still under repair from Hurricane Ida two years ago. He walks around the house on Thursday, March 30, 2023. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

“This shows what happens when you have racial segregation, housing discrimination and infrastructure apartheid,” he said. “It clearly shows that race is the most important factor when you look at who’s at risk from industrial pollution and the danger of flooding.”

060423 chemical facility income chart

Black and poor people are also less likely to evacuate for storms and are more likely to live in drafty homes that allow dangerous fumes inside.

Fleeing a storm can cost a household an average of $177 per day, according to a study by Texas A&M University. For that reason and others – such as lack of access to a car -- poor people are only half as likely as wealthy people to evacuate for a hurricane , studies have shown. Meanwhile, research by the U.S. Energy Department found that homes owned by low-income families typically allow two times as much tainted air as the average home.

Industrial flaring after Hurricane Ida

Industrial plants at Norco burn off chemicals on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, four days after Hurricane Ida knocked out electricity across southeast Louisiana.

Adapting to the times?

Industry leaders say plants and refineries are adapting to growing climate risks with levees, drainage ponds, reinforced electrical systems and other upgrades.

“Hurricanes are getting stronger and more frequent,” said Greg Bowser, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association. “But companies continue to modernize … and look at new technologies.”

Companies wouldn’t continue to build in Louisiana if they couldn’t handle the threat of storms and floods, he added.

Refinery spill

Oil and floodwaters surround the Alliance Refinery near Belle Chasse on Sept. 3, 2021, shortly after Hurricane Ida.?

“These are large investments they’re putting in harm’s way,” Bowser said. “Why would they intentionally put those investments here if they couldn’t handle the risks?”

Bowser and other industry boosters also point out that, while there have been frightening incidents at Louisiana plants, there has never been a disaster that caused a large number of deaths.

Though few requirements are imposed on them when it comes to storm preparation, operators of most facilities take voluntary steps, sometimes burning off harmful chemicals or filling storage tanks to make them less likely to float away in a flood.

“But that’s the extent of it,” said Hanadi Rifai, a hurricane resilience researcher at the University of Houston. “Essentially, the response is to evacuate, except for leaving essential personnel to deal with whatever it is they’re making.”

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Louisiana State Capital and Exxon refinery on Monday, March 20, 2023. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

The new analysis comes as the EPA for the first time is considering rules requiring companies to consider hazards posed by climate change. Scientists and environmental groups are encouraged by the proposals, but say they’re far from perfect. They’d also likely take three years to implement.

Verchick has a name for the overlapping calamities that increasingly threaten the Gulf Coast.

“They’re double disasters,” he said. “The first disaster is the one we all know: the wind, the rain and the flooding. The second disaster is the failure of the infrastructure, when the power goes out, the flooding that washes pollution into the streets or the emergency releases of poisonous gases around where people live. These secondary risks are incredibly important. But they're often things that we don't think about.”

Over the past 20 years, petrochemical plants have soaked hundreds of homes in oil; polluted cities with toxic gas; triggered fires that burned for days; forced evacuations and lockdowns; and sent dozens of residents and emergency responders to the hospital.

Those events caused few deaths. But experts say the frequency of double disasters will grow as the planet warms. Climate change will fuel stronger, wetter and longer-lasting storms, numerous studies predict. And such storms are also likely to be more durable, pushing rain into communities that may be even less prepared than their coastal counterparts.

Flaring at Norco after Hurricane Ida

Wind damage to parts of a refinery where flaring was taking place the morning after Hurricane Ida in Norco, Louisiana on Monday, August 30, 2021. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Hidden risk

The possibility of Chalmette Refinery unleashing 360 tons of hydrofluoric acid across the New Orleans metro area wasn’t a scenario Pooja Prazid envisioned when she moved to Chalmette a few years ago.

A chemical engineer, Prazid knows living near industrial facilities comes with risks. But she was dismayed to discover the refinery stores massive volumes of a deadly chemical most refineries no longer use.

“It’s actually pretty scary,” she said after learning about the refinery’s worst-case scenario. “With a hurricane, it could be a huge catastrophe.”

Chalmette Refinery

Chalmette Refinery on Sunday, May 3, 2020.  (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

In low doses, hydrofluoric acid can cause disfiguring burns, internal bleeding and death. More than 880,000 people live within reach of a large-scale release of the chemical, which would likely escape as a colorless, fast-moving gas. That’s according to the refinery’s latest Risk Management Plan, or RMP, a document the federal government requires of more than 12,000 facilities that store harmful chemicals.

Companies must disclose in RMPs potential mishaps that could trigger dangerous incidents. Because of terrorism concerns, access to RMPs is restricted. A person must arrange the viewing at a federal courthouse, under the supervision of a U.S. marshal. No copies or photos are allowed.

“I used to be able to just Google this stuff,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer who teaches at Rice University. “It was really some of the best information ever put together by the federal government. But after 9/11, you can't get your hands on it anymore. It's unfortunate because it’s stuff the community really ought to know.”

The Times-Picayune reviewed RMPs for 20 facilities in south Louisiana. All but three listed climate-related disasters as potential causes of large-scale chemical releases.

122722 Bayer Crop Science risk map

Bayer Crop Science plant risk zone: Bayer estimates more than 506,000 people living within a 16-mile radius of its plant in Luling could be harmed by a chemical release during a ‘worst-case scenario’ that could involve a hurricane.?

Many facilities had overlapping risk zones,?concentrated between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. A hurricane striking the Westlake Vinyls plant in Geismar, for instance, could result in a 1 million-pound burst of chlorine gas – enough to imperil more than 660,000 people from Baton Rouge to LaPlace, according to the plant’s RMP. The plan for the Bayer Crop Science plant in Luling says a natural disaster could unleash lung-burning phosphorus trichloride vapors across all of Metairie, St. Charles Parish and part of New Orleans.

Officials from several companies expressed confidence the worst-case scenarios they are required to describe will never occur.

“While people tend to speculate on ‘what ifs’ to generate concepts … our refinery is resilient, having weathered major hurricanes and other storms by meticulously following our response plan,” said Elizabeth Ellison-Frost, a spokesperson for the Chalmette Refinery, owned by New Jersey-based PBF Energy.

The nightmare scenarios required by RMPs are “unrealistic,” said Michelle Eaglin, a spokesperson for the Rubicon plant in Geismar. She noted the plans assume chemicals would escape at a constant rate for an extended period of time and in all directions.

Texas port facility after Harvey

A flooded and damaged industrial port facility on the Texas coast after Hurricane Harvey in?August 2017.?

Some plants have taken additional protective measures in recent years. The Bayer plant has levees, chemical spill containment areas and stormwater management systems. Ida convinced the plant’s German owners to improve drainage ponds and ditches, install wind-resistant building reinforcements and beef up the electrical system.

But such measures are voluntary, said Casey Kalman, who has conducted flood risk research for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Facilities along the coast – especially Louisiana – are very vulnerable, but the regulations in place don’t force them to take the necessary precautions we’d expect to see,” she said. “No facility is required to consider climate change in their risk management plans, even if they’re near schools, hospitals or where a lot of people live.”

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Robert Taylor, right, at his home in Reserve which is still under repair from Hurricane Ida two years ago. He walks around the house on Thursday, March 30, 2023. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Flood map failings

Some plant operators may not fully grasp the risks they face. Federal flood maps, which guide where and how to build, have long drawn criticism for being out of date and for failing to factor in growing threats from intense rainfall, sea level rise and other climate dangers.

“FEMA maps don’t look right when you compare them to where it actually floods,” said Bill Read, a former director of the National Hurricane Center. “They don’t match how the real world works.”

The Times-Picayune based its risk analysis on the First Street Foundation’s flood models, which draw from more up-to-date data, and incorporate the behavior of past storms, changing rain patterns and sea level rise.

A key flaw in FEMA’s data is that it’s “stationary,” meaning it assumes “tomorrow is going to be like yesterday,” said Ed Kearns, First Street’s chief data officer.

“This concept used to work, but with a changing environment, it’s a poor assumption and no longer does,” he said.

But it’s an assumption also shared by companies with plants in harm’s way. Because the Denka Performance Elastomers plant near LaPlace has weathered storms in the past, company officials believe it will continue to do so.

“The location was chosen due to the fact that it sits on high ground,” said Jim Harris, a Denka spokesperson. “In the memory of long-term employees, the site has never flooded.”

Robert Taylor, who lives a few blocks from the Denka plant, doesn’t share the company’s confidence.

Norco flares over flood water

Floodwater covers the ground at an industrial plant flaring off chemicals in Norco on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, the day after Hurricane Ida knocked out commercial power across much of southeast Louisiana.

“It’s foolishness,” he said. “They think nature’s on their side? I built my house in 1968, and it was never affected by a storm. But last year, Ida made a tornado that destroyed my house. And they’re going to say no hurricane hurt us before, so it never will? How can they say such a silly thing?”

The Times-Picayune’s analysis indicates the Denka site is at high risk from storms, including a potential Hurricane Harvey-like event that could inundate the facility with about 2.5 feet of rain water.

?To Harris's point, the site has historically resisted flooding. LaPlace was hammered by “100-year storms” in 2012 and 2021 -- Hurricanes Isaac and Ida -- both of which provoked major flooding from storm surge. Neither caused serious problems at Denka.

According to Denka’s 2020 RMP, the plant could release chlorine gas across an area with more than 130,000 residents or produce a “vapor cloud explosion” large enough to harm a nearby elementary school. The document lists several vulnerabilities, including fires, chemical reactions and equipment failures, but makes almost no mention of hurricanes or floods.

Murphy Oil spill

Oil seeps from an Murphy Oil tank farm and into a Chalmette neighborhood on? September 3, 2005.

Lessons learned ‘over and over’

Hurricane Katrina caused more than 540 oil spills, large and small. Add them together, and the estimated 10.8 million gallons lost would equal the oily deluge from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

The Katrina spills, which were mostly unseen in remote wetlands or out in the Gulf, are largely forgotten. But the Murphy Oil spill was hard to ignore.

The same floodwaters that inundated New Orleans easily overwhelmed the 8-foot levees protecting Murphy’s refinery in Meraux. The water lifted a storage tank from its foundation and sent the Winn-Dixie-size structure adrift. When it ran aground, it released more than 1 million gallons of crude, coating 1,700 nearby homes. Eight residential blocks alongside the refinery were demolished and today remain empty lots with contaminated soil.

Katrina prompted a group of EPA and emergency response experts to issue several recommendations: protect water-reactive chemicals; build better floodwalls; elevate utilities above flood levels; bolt down tanks and either empty them or fill them up so they don’t float away.

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A field near Jacob Drive in Meraux where houses once stood near the Valero refinery on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. There was an oil spill from a nearby tank during Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

John Pardue, an LSU environmental engineering professor, said they were simple, commonsense fixes. But companies aren’t required to do any of them, and it’s unclear how many have.

“These are lessons we’re still learning, and we do it over and over,” Kalman said.

In 2017, heavy rainfall from Harvey put the Arkema peroxide plant near Houston under 4 feet of water. The flooding triggered a chemical fire that sickened several emergency responders, and forced the evacuation of 200 homes.

BioLab fire

A chemical fire at the BioLab chemical plant sends a toxic plume over Lake Charles following Hurricane Laura in southwest Louisiana on Thursday, August 27, 2020.?

Harvey also damaged several tanks, releasing 530,000 gallons of chemicals around Houston. Their roofs didn’t hold up to heavy rain, causing the release of 400 tons of cancer-causing benzene and other toxic vapors.

Three years later, Laura’s brutal winds ripped open the BioLab chlorine plant near Lake Charles and ignited huge volumes of chemicals. The fire sent a plume of smoke and chlorine gas -- used as a weapon in World War I – across Lake Charles and other communities. The fire burned for three days and prompted a multi-city order to shelter in place.

Simple upgrades likely would have averted both the Arkema and BioLab disasters, Pardue said.

“This stuff isn’t rocket science,” he said. “These are problems that are just begging for regulations, but nothing’s happened.”

Hurricane Ida oil spills

Oil floats on the surface of flooded Phillips 66 oil refinery at Alliance on Sept. 9, 2021. ?(Flight courtesy of SouthWings)

Regulatory ebb and flow

Over the past 20 years, states and the federal government have offered a hodgepodge of rules and suggestions. Most ignore climate risks.

122722 Westlake Vinyls Geismar risk zone

Westlake Vinyls risk zone: Westlake estimates more than 662,000 people living within a 25-mile radius of its Westlake Vinyls plant in Geismar could be harmed by toxic gasses during a ‘worst-case scenario’ that could involve a hurricane or flooding.?

“Most of the regulations?we have are for dry weather spills,” Pardue said. As a result, many protective measures used by plants are designed to hold a spill in rather than to keep a flood out.

The federal government leaves tank standards and spill prevention guidelines to the American Petroleum Institute, which makes suggestions rather than rules. And much of the API’s guidance focuses on wind, not rainfall or storm surge.

By contrast, federal regulators take the risk of surge seriously for nuclear power plants. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that even low-risk storm surges be incorporated into the permitting of nuclear plants.

“Fukushima changed their view of what was likely to happen because Fukushima was unlikely to happen,” Blackburn said. “I think it's gonna take a hurricane destroying a whole bunch of chemical tanks to cause the type of reevaluation of these issues. It's unfortunate, but that's just the way this seems to work.”

Other countries and some states have enacted tougher requirements. California and Colorado require companies to anchor storage tanks. New York requires plants to demonstrate how they’d handle surge, flooding and sea-level rise before issuing permits.

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Chandra Straw and her dog, Tuna, walk along the Mississippi River near her home in Algiers across from the refineries in Chalmette on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

In recent months, federal agencies have joined the chorus asking for regulatory reforms. The U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Chemical Safety Board have urged the EPA to adopt new safeguards against climate-related accidents at chemical plants. The CSB, which investigates chemical accidents, highlighted the BioLab fire in its recommendations for new rules.

“Regulators must take action to prevent weather-related releases of hazardous chemicals,” CSB chair Steve Owens said in April.

Efforts to strengthen federal rules have ebbed and flowed depending on who occupies the White House. In 2013, President Barack Obama signed an executive order requiring better chemical storage, wider disclosure of hazardous chemical locations, and third-party accident investigations. The Trump administration repealed them.

The pendulum could swing back if the Biden administration-led EPA makes good on its new proposals in August.

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Robert Taylor, right, at his home in Reserve which is still under repair from Hurricane Ida two years ago. He walks around the house on Thursday, March 30, 2023. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Some environmental groups worry the EPA’s plan may merely require facilities to assess hazards rather than alleviate them.

“One downside of these rules is that they require a lot of evaluating, but not a lot of implementation,” said Darya Minovi, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Taylor, the community organizer in St. John, hopes the proposals gain traction, but he’s learned from decades of experience that obvious dangers rarely spur equally obvious solutions.

“Anybody knows you shouldn’t be allowed to operate without having a credible means of protecting people,” he said. “Hurricanes and floods are the greatest known threats to these plants, and they have no way to protect us from them.”

This work is supported with a grant funded by the Walton Family Foundation and administered by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Tristan Baurick: tbaurick@theadvocate.com; on Twitter: @tristanbaurick.

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