Hurricane Katrina Caused 500 Oil Spills, Could Laura Inflict Similar Damage?

In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, more than 400 pipelines and 100 drilling platforms were damaged by the storms and 540 separate oil spills were reported in Louisiana waters. As reported,

Nine days after the storm, oil could still be seen leaking from toppled storage tanks, broken pipelines and sunken boats between New Orleans and the Mississippi River’s mouth. And then Hurricane Rita hit. Oil let loose by Katrina was pushed farther inland by Rita three weeks later, and debris from the first storm caused damage to oil tankers rocked by the second.

While new large-scale refineries and petrochemical plants are built to withstand massive storms, these facilities will see their biggest test since Katrina and Rita with the nearly category 5 Hurricane Laura. As Yahoo finance explained, the stretch of coastline “that will feel Laura’s impact accounts for about a quarter of U.S. oil refining capacity and half of North America’s production of ethylene, a key plastic raw material.”

Why This Matters: Hurricane Laura has already shut down 84% of U.S. oil output in the Gulf but that’s no assurance that leaks won’t occur. In fact, if there’s one thing guaranteed with oil and natural gas infrastructure is that it will leak. In Louisiana, from a hurricane-related spill that’s been spewing oil since 2004, to the persistent pollution seen in Cancer Alley, it’s evident that the fossil fuel industry will continue to be a threat to the environment as long as it’s allowed to exist in its current capacity.

As NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration explained, oil spills actually are a pretty common outcome of powerful storms like hurricanes. And some of the most dangerous potential for spills come from vessels carrying oil that get damaged by hurricane winds and storm surges. 

Petrochem Buildout: America’s natural gas boom directly caused a petrochemical boom in Texas and Louisiana to refine natural gas into the chemicals used to make plastics and other substances. The sizeable build-out of petrochemical facilities has come, as Earthjustice wrote, in low-income communities and communities of color already overburdened by pollution and a long history of environmental racism.

Should Hurricane Laura inundate these facilities, the most vulnerable communities would be most affected.

In 2017, an Arkema plant was inundated by the waters of Hurricane Harvey and caught on fire. But, as Yahoo further explained, Laura could be the strongest storm to hit Louisiana in more than 160 years, and the resulting damage could be unprecedented given the vast economic growth in the area over the last decade.

  • The expected storm surge could leave Lake Charles — home to several chemical plants including those run by Sasol Ltd., Phillips 66, and Westlake Chemical — under 15 feet (4.5 meters) of water, according to the National Weather Service.

Houston Has A Toxic Problem Too:

The Houston Ship Channel is a disaster waiting to happen – with thousands of tanks of chemicals that “could create one of the worst environmental disasters ever to befall the coastal U.S,” according to Phil Bedient, director of Rice University’s storm-studying SSPEED Center.

What happened during Hurricane Katrina makes the Houston scenario really frightening. As Bedient described it to The Houston Chronicle: “After the New Orleans’ levees failed, a storm surge somewhere between 6 feet and 18 feet hit the Murphy Oil refinery. A tank was knocked off its moorings and leaked more than 1 million gallons of crude oil. The oil mixed with the floodwaters, and that goo spread over roughly a square mile, contaminating roughly 1,700 homes in nearby neighborhoods. It was Katrina’s worst environmental disaster.”  “You could smell the crude from five miles away,” Bedient remembered. “Just from one tank.”

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