Over the last week, Tropical Depression Imelda dumped more than 40 inches of rain across the chemical corridor between Houston and Beaumont, causing at least five deaths and as much as $8 billion in damage, most of it in Southeast Texas. Just a little over two years since Hurricane Harvey hit the region hard, leading to the explosions at the Arkema plant in Crosby northeast of Houston, we are once again reading reports of significant releases of chemicals related to this latest storm.
Early self-reporting indicates that tens of thousands of pounds of pollutants, including carcinogens such as butadiene and benzene, have been released into the air in Southeast Texas as a result of Imelda. The emissions were caused by a variety of things that tend to go wrong during these epic weather events – electrical outages, unanticipated shutdowns, equipment malfunctions and the failure of storage tanks. That’s much like what happened during and in the aftermath of Harvey.
In the wake of Harvey, the industry self-reported to the state of Texas that 8.3 million pounds of unpermitted air pollution was released from the region’s chemical plants. That’s in addition to the failure of more than 15 storage tanks with floating roofs, holding crude oil, gasoline and other hydrocarbons, failures that resulted in the release of 3.1 million pounds of pollutants into the atmosphere. The Environmental Integrity Project last year produced an extensive catalogue of air and water pollution caused by the storm.
Legislators and industry have made efforts to address the risks since Harvey, but there is little to show for it. As industry infrastructure is expanding rapidly along the Gulf Coast to serve growing oil and gas production and exports, we cannot afford to wait.
Harris County commissioned a report by the PENTA Consortium LLC earlier this year, which found that 110 chemical facilities in Harris County have hazardous chemical inventories of more than 10 million pounds. And these facilities are located within a half-mile of the homes of more than 75,000 people. But Harris County isn’t an isolated case. We anticipate a similar challenge in Corpus Christi on the Texas coast as that area prepares for substantial growth from the chemicals industry.
As mentioned, there have been efforts to address the problems, including the recommendation last December by a legislative committee to retrofit all external floating roof tanks with geodesic dome covers to reduce the risk of failure. There are about 1,500 such tanks along a 50-mile stretch of the Gulf Coast, with retrofitting costs ranging from $500,000 to $1.6 million per tank, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ. The state’s environmental agency has indicated it lacks the authority to enforce the change for both existing “brownfield” or new construction “greenfield” facilities.
Texas state senators Carol Alvarado and Nathan Johnson earlier this year filed a bill that would have empowered TCEQ and addressed some of the challenges in chemical storage. The bill died in committee.
We know how to reduce the risks of these potentially catastrophic failures, through such measures as requiring internal floating roofs for all new tank installations in locations that may be affected by a hurricane. Alternatively, we could also require floating roof tanks to be equipped with drain pipes large enough to handle most spills and leaks. Neither of these ideas have been implemented. With over 200 chemical facilities and 4,100 storage tanks along the 50 miles of the Houston Ship Channel, according to research by my colleagues at the University of Houston, the performance and resilience of those chemical facilities and storage tanks is of paramount importance.
The risk is growing all along the Texas coast and there is more to be done to ensure the safety of these facilities. Chemical infrastructure and crude export terminals are expanding in Corpus Christi and surrounding areas, meaning there will be a massive increase in chemical storage capacity near the southern Gulf coast over the next two to three years. An additional four million barrels of crude oil per day will enter that market over the next three years, and capacity building for processing and export of that crude along the coast of Corpus Christi remains the biggest bottleneck.
We know the Texas coast is vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes, and while the track record for chemical facilities and storage may be improving, it remains a matter of serious public concern, especially in light of the failures during Imelda.
Strengthening the safety protocols required of new refineries, chemical plants and chemical storage facilities built along the Gulf Coast would be a start toward regaining public trust. This cannot wait for the next Texas Legislative session to start the work.
Dr. Ramanan Krishnamoorti is the chief energy officer at the University of Houston. Prior to his current position, Krishnamoorti served as interim vice president for research and technology transfer for UH and the UHSystem. During his tenure at the university, he has served as chair of the UH Cullen College of Engineering’s chemical and biomolecular engineering department, associate dean of research for engineering, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering with affiliated appointments as professor of petroleum engineering and professor of chemistry. Dr. Krishnamoorti obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and doctoral degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University in 1994.
UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.