BY Amy wold
Advocate staff writer
September 10, 2012
Lessons learned from past tropical storms and hurricanes helped reduce the amount of pollution released during Hurricane Isaac’s sweep through Louisiana, officials at the state Department of Environmental Quality said this week.
However, environmental groups countered there is still too much pollution released from industrial sources during hurricanes. They said better preparations are needed in advance of a storm’s arrival.
“Every year, we get better and better at our response,” said Peter Ricca, emergency response manager with DEQ.
At 72 hours before landfall, he said, DEQ staff and other agency staff start calling industries reminding them about shutdown procedures and getting prepared. It appears to be working, he said, considering that the state saw fewer containers floating away from businesses after Hurricane Isaac when compared to the floating debris during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Still, some spills and releases were reported during Hurricane Isaac because of flooding, rainfall and wind.
The incidents ranged from the spill of .003 gallon of crude oil into a private canal in Galliano to a barge sinking that released 2,178 tons of petroleum coke to the Mississippi River, according to information reported to the National Response Center. The National Response Center is where oil and other spills and releases are required to be reported.
There were problems reported during shut downs and start up of some industries in Hurricane Isaac’s path. For example, ConocoPhillips in Belle Chasse reported the release of an unknown amount of sulfur dioxide into air during the final stages of the planned shutdown of the refinery on Aug. 27.
In another shutdown the same day, Chalmette Refining LLC in Chalmette reported the release of 200 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and 46 tons of sulfur dioxide from a flare.
Ed Ballow, DEQ Incident Commander for Hurricane Isaac, said pollutants are sometimes released during shutdown operations, but it’s much more important for them to go through that process rather than not shut down their operations for a storm.
Ballow said that all the reports DEQ has received say no one has had any serious problems in the startup process.
“We couldn’t get to all of the facilities to monitor, but the few we did didn’t show any problems,” Ballow said.
Environmental groups, though, say more needs to be done to protect the environment.
During a news conference Thursday, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Gulf Restoration Network and the Sierra Club called for industry to improve their hurricane preparedness activities and for regulatory agencies to make companies pay fines for hurricane-related accidents.
“Some of them (releases) were small and some of those reports are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, of incidents reported to the federal National Response Center.
Rolfes said storms are known to occur in Louisiana and industry should be prepared to deal with them.
Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said oil and gas production has been operating in the state and in the Gulf of Mexico for decades and that the industry doesn’t prepare properly for storms are unfounded.
Briggs said more than 4,000 facilities in the Gulf of Mexico and thousands of pieces of equipment need to be secured, all of which would be subject to damage in a storm environment. If the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has counted 93 incidents from Hurricane Isaac, he said, that shows industry is doing a good job of being prepared.
“In reality, when you have storms like that, it’s not just the oil industry that gets impacted,” Briggs said.
One item that received numerous reports to the National Response Center was of the release of oil from electrical transformers around the hurricane-affected area. The use of PCBs in the oil was discontinued some years ago, but some transformers still contain the material so it is also reported to the National Response Center, Ricca said.
“We take those seriously when they spill,” Ricca said.
After a storm has passed, DEQ staff work with State Police to do quick assessments of affected areas Ricca said.
“We make sure they’re on the grid and that they had no leaks or discharges,” Ricca said, referring to facilities and operations that are a part of this first response. After that, a parish is cleared to allow assessment teams to do a more detailed look at the facilities and operations in an area along with flights over affected areas, he said.
One spill area that DEQ is monitoring occurred in the Myrtle Grove area in Plaquemines Parish.
“A storage tank got damaged from flooding and wave action,” Ballow said. There is no estimate yet about how much material from the oil production facility was released, he said.