Texas Petroleum Chemical Plant Explosion, and Our Petrochemical 'Collective Suicide'
By Julie Dermansky
A plume from the Texas Petroleum Chemical (TPC) plant hung over Port Neches, Texas on Thanksgiving as emergency workers continued to fight the fire following explosions at the plant on Nov. 27. A mandatory evacuation that called for 60,000 people within a four-mile radius from the plant to leave their homes the day before the holiday was lifted on Nov. 29.
However, officials warned that returning residents be aware of the plume's location because elevated levels of particulate matter associated with the plume near the plant could be "harmful to sensitive groups," and direct exposure could result in respiratory irritation.
I visited the evacuation zone on Thanksgiving, figuring not everyone would heed the order. I wanted to see what it was like to be there on one of America's most widely celebrated holidays. Driving in from Louisiana, I spotted the plume from ten miles to the east in Bridge City, Texas, close to the Louisiana state line.
Although it was clear that many residents had left, it wasn't hard to find people who remained. I photographed homes within a half-mile of the plant and chatted with residents who were out on the street sharing holiday greetings with their neighbors. They were talking about damage to their homes and the size and the direction of the plume.
Police block a road leading to the TPC Plant, in Port Neches, Texas.
Home about half a mile away from the TPC Plant, in Port Neches, Texas.
TPC's plant manufactures highly flammable 1,3 butadiene, a known human carcinogen used to make rubber tires and plastics. The explosion was a reminder of the potential risk for those that live near petrochemical plants.
Environmental advocates are questioning if the Trump administration's rolling back of standards established by President Barack Obama's administration following the 2013 West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion, could be responsible for the 2019 explosion.
The Texas Tribune reported, "as authorities investigate the cause of Wednesday's explosions, it's difficult to say whether the Port Neches incident could have been prevented if the rule had been in effect."
But Heather McTeer Toney, who was an EPA regional administrator under the Obama administration, said, "What we can say with all certainty is that rules like this are critical to ensuring that we're at least aware and are doing everything that we can to prevent these types of explosions."
Charles English, who was working at the TPC Plant during the shift just before the explosion, expressed thanks that he was not there later, because if he had been he could be dead now. He hopes things get back to normal soon, so he can get back to work.
Neighborhood near the TPC Plant in Port Neches on Thanksgiving.
Rodney Gouthier, a longtime Port Neches resident whose house is about a half mile from the plant, told me that in the 32 years he had lived on his block, he never experienced anything like the explosion. "We were blessed not to have more damage than we did," he said. "Rumor is it was a freak accident. They have always been good neighbors."
Though Gouthier described TPC as a good neighbor, the company's record says otherwise. The Texas Tribune reported that the TPC plant "has been considered a high priority violator by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for more than two years, and been out of compliance with federal clean air laws since the agency's last inspection in August 2017."
"Together, the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state's environmental regulatory agency, have fined TPC for air emissions violations more than half a dozen times in the past five years after finding many of the missteps preventable. The last federal censure TPC faced was in 2017 when it was ordered under a consent decree to pay a civil penalty of $72,187, make various equipment upgrades and spend no less than $275,000 on fenceline monitoring for butadiene."
Plume from the TPC Plant moving over a park across from the plant in Port Neches, Texas.
Tennis courts next to the TPC Plant in Port Neches, Texas in front of a giant plume.
Since the explosion, the TCEQ has stated that its air monitoring indicates no human health concerns, even though its website warns that "the incident is causing the release of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Elevated levels of VOCs from this facility are odorous. Short-term exposure to high concentrations of VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, and nausea."
Sharon Wilson, Texas coordinator of Earthworks, thinks that looking to the Texas Department of Environmental Protection for help isn't a good bet considering its track record.
"The Texas oil and gas and petrochemical facilities have one disaster after the other, driving the globe further into climate crisis and causing local communities intense health impacts," she told me following the incident. "The TCEQ and EPA cannot regulate existing facilities yet they continue to permit more fracking and more oil and gas infrastructure. It's past time for Texas to stop permitting new oil and gas and rapidly transition to clean renewable energy," Wilson said.
"I woke up this morning tired, depressed and scared. I cannot be the only person terrified of this disastrous path we're on," Angela Blanchard, a Houston-based long-term disaster recovery expert and Brown University senior fellow, told me in an email. She is known for her work as head of the nonprofit Baker Ripley, that helped countless people after Hurricane Harvey by rapidly opening shelters.
Although she has been committed to developing solutions for community challenges that the rest of the country will face due to sea level rise from climate change, she didn't offer any of the optimistic, uplifting thoughts she usually dispenses.
Instead she concluded, "The plant expansions continue at a record pace. We are committing a kind of collective suicide."
Blocked off intersection in Port Neches, Texas on Nov. 28.
Plume coming from the TPC Plant on Nov. 28.
Reposted with permission from DeSmogBlog.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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