Inspection reports and other assessments for petrochemical plants and industrial facilities caught in Hurricane Laura’s path show roughly a one-third suffered some type of damage, as some environmental advocates urge the state to aggressively monitor pollution levels and share more information with the public.
It's the first real sweep of storm damage assessments, many of which were self-reported.
According to a WWNO/WRKF analysis of publicly-available reports and emails from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), while the majority of facilities emerged unscathed from the Category 4 hurricane, nine out of the 138 facilities that were inspected suffered critical damage. Among them are:
- the BioLab facility in Westlake that caught fire, releasing plumes of chlorine gas the day after the storm;
- the Chemical Waste Management facility in Lake Charles, which reported “severe” damage, including the potential “total loss” of a transfer facility;
- the Lotte Chemical plant in Lake Charles and Equistar Chemicals facility in Westlake, which also reported “critical” damage, though no other details were available.
Officials are still taking stock of the damage to industrial facilities caused by Hurricane Laura last week. As part of its assessment process, the LDEQ called, emailed and visited facilities located within the path of the storm, both before and after it hit.
One hundred and sixty-five facilities responded, including oil pipelines, utility companies, chemical manufacturers and water treatment facilities. Most of them reported minimal or no damage. Twenty-seven of them could not be assessed in person and their potential damage remains unknown.
Companies that were able to conduct inspections reported a range of problems, from small oil spills and orphaned drums to wind-damaged buildings and torn-off roofs.
The numbers in the LDEQ’s database are corroborated by data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It’s hard to say whether the data is a full accounting of all of the accidents the storm may have caused. LDEQ inspectors have had trouble accessing many of the sites because of debris or locked fences.
Greg Langley, spokesperson with the LDEQ, said inspectors will follow-up on reports of damage and they expect to have a better understanding of the damage in coming days.
“I don't think we know everything that’s happened,” he said. “I think we’ll have a very complete picture … within the next couple of weeks. Anything major, we will find right away. You can’t hide this kind of stuff.”
More facilities could be added to the list in the coming days and weeks, and Langley said the agency would continue looking.
But Tulane Environmental Law Clinic Community Outreach Director Kimberly Terrell said the state’s response has been slow and inadequate.
“This is a time when information about air quality is critically important for public health,” she said. “The thing that’s so heartbreaking is if you don't have information, you don't know what the health impacts are.”
Terrell advocates for residents in Lake Charles and Mossville, which are heavily industrial areas, and said information on leaks and spills is not readily available.
“These people have been overburdened for decades with industrial pollution, and now this risk is being dramatically elevated,” she said, “and there’s still not an appropriate response.”
LDEQ has deployed two mobile monitoring units, which are currently on the ground in Calcasieu Parish, monitoring for particulate matter and pollution in the air. So far, they haven’t seen elevated readings, Langley said.
Chemist and environmental advocate Wilma Subra said it took too long to get those monitors on the ground — nearly a week — and she wants to see more data. She called LDEQ’s response “very iffy and scattered.” She said the state should be asking the EPA for handheld and flyover monitoring.
She also said the state needs to hand out fliers with air quality information to affected residents because many of them are without cell and internet service and do not know whether the air is healthy to breathe.
The EPA is investigating potential damage at two superfund sites in Louisiana — possible leaching of creosote-laden soil at American Creosote in DeRidder, and another incident at Marion Pressure Treating in Marion.
EPA officials said they are on standby to assist the state with monitoring, but the state has not requested their help, other than for monitoring after the BioLab fire in Westlake. The EPA flew planes outfitted with air monitors over the fire.
Langley said the state did not need the EPA’s help at this point, as it has deployed its own monitors. But, he added, “we have asked them to please be ready because we probably will need their help somewhere along the way.”
He said the next big challenge for the state will be separating all of the debris and getting it to landfills.
The EPA is continuously monitoring and providing real-time data in Texas.