Air Monitors Disabled on Gulf Coast as Storm Unleashes Pollution

As Hurricane Laura barreled toward the Gulf Coast on Wednesday, Texas and Louisiana regulators disabled dozens of air monitors meant to sniff out carcinogenic benzene, ozone-forming compounds, and other pollution.

Monitors installed across Beaumont and Houston -- the heart of the U.S. petrochemical and refining complex -- “are not designed to withstand hurricane-force winds,” the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said. Louisiana regulators also notified the federal government of plans to turn off air monitors ahead of the storm, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in an emailed statement.

Environmentalists and public health experts warned Thursday that without active air monitoring, local communities and regulators may not detect the silent and sometimes odorless chemical leaks that may have been unleashed by Laura, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit Louisiana.

Already, a Motiva Enterprises LLC refinery in Port Arthur reported that as it prepared for the storm, a process line leaked an estimated 223 pounds of benzene, volatile organic compounds and other substances. And residents in Westlake, Louisiana, have been asked to shelter indoors to avoid exposure to a chemical plant fire that could release its own toxic plume.

“We’re talking about some of the biggest refineries in the entire nation,” said Elena Craft, a Texas-based toxicologist and a senior health and climate director with the Environmental Defense Fund. “Even on a good day we know there are emissions that are unaccounted for or not followed up on. We don’t have a clear understanding of the volume or magnitude of some of these emission events.”

The TCEQ has already begun bringing back online some air monitors in Houston, with data possibly available later Thursday, spokesman Brian McGovern said. It could take longer to restart systems in Beaumont. In the meantime, the agency said it’s deploying sensor-equipped vans to help monitor air quality.

As the storm menaced the coast, companies in southeast Texas told regulators that even without emergency spills they expected to release an extra 4.4 million pounds of pollutants, including ozone-forming compounds and the carcinogens benzene and 1,3-Butadiene, just from rapidly shutting facilities before the storm and restarting them after. Particularly heavy emissions were anticipated by the Beaumont Gas to Gasoline Plant and a refinery in Galveston, according to reports filed with the state and analyzed by the EDF.

Air monitors don’t produce reliable samples during windy weather, said Neil Carman, a former TCEQ official who is now a Sierra Club clean air program director.

“The wind is going to dilute pollution,” Carman said by phone. “After the storm passes and the wind has gone away, that’s when you’re going to see pollution levels rise.”

After Hurricane Harvey swept through Houston three years ago, it took weeks for some air monitors to be brought back online. In the meantime, some chemical leaks were found to be much larger than originally described.

For instance, a Valero Energy Partners LP refinery in Houston initially reported an estimated 6.7 pounds of benzene had been released after Harvey damaged a crude storage tank. But independent monitors near the site detected benzene levels six times higher than what Valero initially reported. And the company ultimately revised its first estimate, telling regulators the actual release was nearly 300 times larger than initially calculated, resulting in discharging some 1,881 pounds of the carcinogen.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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