Nearly a month after Hurricane Ida churned through a vast network of off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and then spun over refineries, chemical plants and hundreds of other industrial sites ashore, authorities still do not know how much pollution the powerful Category 4 storm unleashed.
They probably never will.
Much of Louisiana’s air monitoring network was knocked out of commission for a few days amid widespread power failures, at a critical time when refineries and chemical plants were under the most stress. It was left to eye-witnesses to describe the black smoke from burning off, or flaring, combustibles from their pipes, before and after shutting down.
And while state environmental officials said that oil and gas infrastructure in the region held up well compared to earlier major hurricanes, that’s little consolation to many residents.
Beyond the lack of air monitoring, the U.S. Coast Guard is still looking into some of the nearly 2,500 reports of Ida-related pollution in the Gulf and other waterways. Some experts said there are probably many more spills that officials may never know about.
Big hurricanes are big pollution events, especially when they target the nation’s fossil fuel infrastructure, something that has been happening at an increasing pace. In all, five named storms struck Louisiana in 2020, and the state had not yet recovered when Ida made landfall on Aug. 29, packing 150 mph winds. Then, last week, Hurricane Nicholas, a Category 1 event, brought torrential rains and storm surge to southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana.
Now, with the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concluding in August that coastal regions should brace for more intense, wetter and windier storms, environmental advocates on the Gulf Coast fear that pollution let loose by hurricanes will only get worse.
They are especially concerned about Black, Brown and Indigenous communities living near chemical plants and refineries in the lowest-lying, unprotected areas. Those communities confront environmental injustices on a daily basis and are also hit hardest by hurricanes, including Ida.
“We can expect more intense storms and climate disasters for the decades to come,” said Jennifer Crosslin, a regional organizer with the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, a Louisiana group working for climate justice. “Justice requires us to do things differently.”
Ida Smashed Into 600 Industrial Sites
Ida caused at least 28 deaths in Louisiana, many of them heat related, during an extended power outage. With 150 mph gales, it also tied with last year’s Hurricane Laura and the Last Island Hurricane of 1856 for the strongest maximum sustained winds on record at landfall in the state.
In the Gulf, Ida created waves nearly as tall as three-story buildings, and
as it moved inland, it delivered hurricane force winds in excess of 74 mph, deep into the state.
The storm struck part of a region that hosts about 50 percent of total U.S. petroleum refining capacity as well as about 50 percent of total U.S. natural gas processing plant capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Federal offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico accounts for 15 percent of total U.S. crude oil production.
There are more than 20,000 miles of active pipelines in the Gulf, and another 18,000 miles of decommissioned or abandoned pipelines not in use, according to the federal government’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The agency also counts 1,734 offshore oil and gas platforms operating there.
The day before Ida made landfall, The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate published an analysis showing that almost 600 Louisiana industrial sites with toxic chemicals were in Ida’s path.
In the days following Ida, Naomi Yoder, staff scientist with the environmental group Healthy Gulf, flew twice over the Gulf of Mexico and southern Louisiana, surveying what Ida left behind.
Two things stood out, Yoder said: industrial plants sending plumes of dirty, smelly smoke into the air from flare stacks, and the many shiny oil or chemical spill slicks floating on Gulf waters.
“There was widespread destruction,” Yoder said. “A lot of the big refineries, or petrochemical plants, had flaring, and standing water.”
Flaring, a safety valve meant to prevent explosions, is the process of burning excess chemicals to remove them from a plant’s pipes, and is often used during shutdowns and losses of power.
Flying over one refinery, Yoder said, the rotten eggs smell of sulfur dioxide was overwhelming. “A couple of us got sick” and vomited, Yoder said. “What really stood out was the number of spills dispersed out there in the marshes and in the Gulf. There are spills everywhere. It is like death by a thousand cuts. How are we supposed to ever clean all this up?”
How Much Oil Spilled Into the Ocean?
As of late last week, the Coast Guard had assessed 2,259 of 2,464 reports of pollution spills made to the country’s National Response Center (NRC), and it was actively supervising cleanup at more than 600 of those.
Some of the reported spills, said spokesman Lt. John Edwards, could have been as “small as a teacup,” while others were larger.
Divers plugged a leak from an old pipeline in the Bay Marchand area of the Gulf of Mexico that created a visible 11-mile-long sheen and had received a lot of public attention. Edwards said the Coast Guard was not aware of any active or continuing discharges.
“Any impact to the waterway is important, which is why we respond to every single NRC report,” he said. For each spill, the Coast Guard tries to identify any so-called “responsible parties,” largely “to try to mitigate any future threat” the leaking facilities might cause.
Edwards said the Coast Guard had no estimate of the total volume of oil released and was not aware of when or if such a calculation would be made.
As air quality monitors were disabled during a power failure that left more than a million electric utility customers in the dark, state officials called in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the days after the storm to help them check air quality around four industrial plants and make pollution detecting overflights, said Greg Langley, press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
So far, Langley said, officials have not detected “any excess chemical compounds,” or “anything above permits,” meaning above what industrial plants are allowed to emit.
He also noted that there wasn’t a situation like last year’s in the Lake Charles area, when state officials told residents after Laura that they needed to shelter in place because of a chemical fire at a plant that makes chlorine for swimming pools. The fire sent toxic smoke billowing into the sky.
“And with spills,” Langley said, “what we are seeing are generally pretty small. I realize that is not a precise number.”
His point of reference was Hurricane Katrina, which, in 2005, along with Hurricane Rita that same year, triggered spills totaling nearly 11 million barrels of oil, or about the same as what spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez environmental disaster in Alaska.
State environmental officials “are hard working people who are good at what they do,” but there’s only so much that can be done during a hurricane, Langley said. “The storm is an act of God.”
Officials, he said, “try work within the bounds of reality. When you don’t have electricity, things don’t work.”
‘We All Know They’re Coming’
Few statements can get under the skin of Louisiana environmental advocates faster than hearing a state official describe a hurricane as “an act of God.”
“It’s their favorite phrase,” Yoder said. “It means there is nothing to be done, there is no responsibility involved. But we have the tools and the technology to engineer these facilities so this doesn’t happen.”
The spills, releases and flaring from Ida are prompting renewed calls for the oil, gas and petrochemical industries to do more to prevent leaks.
“There is nothing more predictable than storms are going to hit this part of the world,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which works to hold the petrochemical industry and government accountable for the true costs of pollution. “We all know they’re coming.”
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There doesn’t have to be as much pollution vented into the air or spilled on land or in the Gulf during hurricanes, said Arvind Ravikumar, a professor in the Department of Petroleum & Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin.
“For a long time, environmental policies and regulations have been very lax and we should not accept the status quo and say people should just live with it,” he said.
To help ride out hurricanes, new regulations could require plants to harden their equipment to make it better withstand the onslaught of wind and water, he said. They could require robust backup power systems at refineries and chemical plants to help them function better when electrical grids fail, as they did in Ida, he said. Air monitoring systems with their own power backup could be expanded, giving residents and regulators a clearer understanding of pollution risk in normal times as well as hurricanes, Ravikumar said.
Making improvements in the face of climate change will require a recognition that it’s not only the industrial facilities that need to become more resilient, he said. The whole energy system is connected, which can lead to “cascades of failures,” as Ida showed with its devastation to the electrical grid, he added.
“We have to be looking at the connected infrastructure and where are the pinch points that need to be fixed,” he said.
In the Gulf, there’s also a big problem with old pipelines, many of them abandoned by industry, and susceptible to leaks, according to a recent federal audit.
Since the 1960s, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has allowed the offshore oil and gas industry to leave 97 percent of pipelines, totaling 18,000 miles, on the seafloor when no longer in use, according to a Government Accountability Office report from March.
“Pipelines can contain oil or gas if not properly cleaned in decommissioning. But the Bureau doesn’t ensure that standards, like cleaning and burial, are met,” the report concluded. The bureau also doesn’t monitor pipeline conditions or movement from currents. If the abandoned pipelines pose safety or environmental risks, there’s no clear funding source for their removal, according to the report.
“At this point, nobody even knows whose pipelines they are, it’s so bad,” Ravikumar said.
Bureau officials responded to the report by saying they are developing new regulations to ensure pipeline safety and integrity.
A statement from the American Petroleum Institute said that safety is a core value of the industry.
“Our industry is committed to advancing new technologies, best practices and standards in addition to working collaboratively with the government on improved regulations for offshore operations,” said Polly Hopkins, a policy director at the institute. “We are closely monitoring the situation in the Gulf of Mexico and will continue to work with the (Biden) administration in support of a revised rule on offshore pipelines that will ensure active and decommissioned pipeline integrity.”
Oil Infrastructure Is Not Built to Withstand Climate Change
Congress is now weighing much of President Biden’s climate agenda in a $3.5 trillion tax and spending plan to move the country beyond fossil fuels, in part because the nation’s current energy infrastructure, environmental activists said, is not built to withstand climate change.
“Disaster recovery has not been equitable and it is not sustainable,” said Jessica Dandridge, executive director of the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit focused on water education, equity and policy. “We need to shift away from oil, plastics and gas,” and emphasize clean energy and people, she said.
Even though getting a full understanding of the environmental consequences of hurricanes like Ida remains elusive, doing so would be a good idea, said Elizabeth Livingston de Calderon, deputy director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which engages in public interest environmental law around industrial pollution and other matters.
Louisiana is a state that relies on cost-benefit analyses to make permitting and other environmental impact decisions, she said.
Without a full accounting of the costs, including impacts from spills and harmful air releases on public health and the environment, “the cost-benefit analysis is off,” she said. “It favors the opposite of the public welfare. It favors pollution.”