The large number of refineries and petrochemical plants means that the Gulf Coast region has large numbers of chemical and oil tank farms and, in some cases, open storage pits.
“When these storms hit the Texas coast, they’re hitting near many chemical plants,” said Al Armendariz, now with the Sierra Club and formerly a regional director for the Environmental Protection Agency based in Texas. “Whenever you have a storm like this, there is always a possibility that some of that stuff might be released.” He added, “chemical plants have storm procedures they are supposed to follow, but tanks can always be ruptured because of flying debris.”
He said that Citgo’s Corpus Christi refinery, in the bull’s eye of the storm, stores and uses hydrofluoric acid, a highly corrosive and toxic chemical used to make high-octane blending components for gasoline. In 2009, the refinery had a fire that led to a release of the chemical, critically injuring one employee.
“The release of even a puff of that stuff into a community” could cause lots of injuries, Armendariz said.
A Chemical Safety Board investigation discovered that the refinery’s stored water supply failed and the facility began to use salt water to deal with the emergency.
Another danger comes from tanks that floodwaters manage to dislodge from their foundations, Armendariz said. During the Katrina storm in 2005, a Murphy Oil tank in New Orleans leaked more than one million gallons of crude oil after being unmoored by floodwaters. It affected approximately 1,800 homes. The company in 2006 reached a $330 million settlement.
— Steven Mufson