On August 29, Hurricane Ida pummeled Louisiana’s coastline with winds as high as 150 miles per hour and a storm surge of up to nine feet, flooding communities and destroying homes. The Category 4 storm displaced thousands of people and left 1 million without power — all as the coronavirus surge overwhelms hospitals across the state.
Amid this chaos, Louisianans faced yet another hazard — the risk of exposure to toxic pollutants from explosions, flares, and accidental releases at disabled, damaged, or flooded industrial facilities.
A week after the storm made landfall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Response Center (NRC), which collects reports on oil, chemical, radiological, biological, and etiological discharges into the environment, had received more than 170 incident reports related to Ida. Many of these were in Louisiana, and 17 were air releases. Yet little is known about the effects as 13 of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s ambient air monitoring sites stopped collecting data due to power outages during the storm.
While a comprehensive list of incidents reported to state and federal agencies is not yet available, based on NRC reports and a list compiled by journalists at Nola.com, at least nine facilities with reported releases in Louisiana are regulated under EPA’s Risk Management Program, or RMP. This program requires industrial facilities storing hazardous substances above threshold amounts to develop Risk Management Plans that (1) identify the possible effects of accidents; (2) outline steps to prevent accidents; and (3) and establish clear procedures in response to accidents.
The RMP’s goal is to prevent hazardous chemical incidents and protect communities from death, injury, toxic exposure, and other harms. But it’s not working well enough, particularly in the face of the worsening effects of climate change.
These nine facilities emitted a slew of hazardous substances, including hydrogen, ammonia, ethylene dichloride, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, nitrate, hydrogen sulfide, and gasoline. Inhaling these compounds can cause respiratory and eye irritation and, in high concentrations, severe damage to organ systems.
The releases, largely attributed to power outages in the wake of the storm, may have been prevented. What’s more, they took place at sites where at least a dozen previous accidents occurred.
Marginalized Communities at Risk
Accidents are especially dangerous to fenceline communities, many of which are low-income communities of color. Last week, a PVC plant in Plaquemine, located in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” and regulated under the RMP program, released an unknown amount of ethylene dichloride, which, when inhaled, can harm the lungs, nervous system, liver, and kidneys. The reason for the release was stated as “power inconsistency/Hurricane Ida.”
The facility — Shintech Louisiana — was approved in 2019 for a 300-acre expansion that will bring it within a few hundred feet of people’s homes and increase toxic air emissions by up to 16 percent, according to an analysis by ProPublica. Meanwhile, the cancer risk in neighboring St. Gabriel is already six times the national average due to its proximity to several other polluting facilities. And this is all against a backdrop of study after study showing the link between air pollution exposure and COVID-19 mortality.
In response to community concerns, Shintech officials touted the company’s history of safe operations and claimed its “social and economic benefits” outweigh environmental impacts. Yet, last week’s release appears to be the second reported accident at the facility in the last five years.
Rob Verchick, Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) President and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, said of facilities like Shintech, “The companies operating in Cancer Alley have been moving in exactly the opposite direction. Instead of pushing for expansion and increased production, they should be focusing on how to make what they already have secure during more intense storms. The goal is to make surrounding neighborhoods safer in the future, not more dangerous."
Needed Reforms for the RMP
In particular, EPA’s Risk Management Program has two major gaps. It currently does not address climate change and the stronger, wetter, and more intense storms that come with it. Also, it does not require facilities to take actions to protect fenceline communities from the effects of chemical releases worsened by extreme weather.
Without action, these releases will become more frequent, according to a recent brief CPR published with Earthjustice and the Union of Concerned Scientists. We found that one-third of RMP facilities nationwide are in areas threatened by wildfires, inland and coastal flooding, and hurricane storm surge.
The Gulf Coast is among the nation’s most vulnerable regions, with more than 2,500 facilities facing elevated climate risks (roughly 10 percent of these are located in Louisiana). Failing to modernize the RMP will undoubtedly result in harm to countless community members and workers.
Donald Trump’s EPA gutted critical amendments to the RMP proposed by the Obama administration. Thankfully, President Biden’s EPA is gathering information to review and hopefully strengthen the program.
Our brief, Preventing “Double Disasters”, calls on the EPA to require facilities to assess climate risks and implement prevention and mitigation measures, like backup power and safer equipment and systems. We also call on the agency to require advance community notification and emergency response planning; involve workers in climate disaster preparedness and response practices; monitor and collect toxic air emissions data in real time; and expand coverage to more facilities in areas prone to natural disasters.
We presented our recommendations to EPA officials in July, and we will continue to work with our colleagues at Earthjustice and the Union of Concerned Scientists to ensure the agency incorporates them. Our government must safeguard communities at risk from chemical incidents and require all facilities to make adequate preparations for climate change and natural disasters. It is a matter of health, safety, and justice.
To learn more about our work to protect communities from double disasters, sign up for our email list.