Restarting Chemical Plants After a Storm Means Enormous Gas Leaks
(Bloomberg) -- In the chaos surrounding Hurricane Laura, a sprawling chemical plant in Port Arthur, Texas, released nearly 90 tons of emissions, including a half ton of cancer-causing benzene and 8.7 tons of planet-warming nitrous oxide. The leaks reported to state regulators in two days totaled more than the facility, Motiva Chemical, had in unauthorized emissions in all of 2018.
Unlike some the fossil-fuel infrastructure located in the path of the storm, there was no fire or other major damage to Motiva’s complex in Port Arthur, which includes the largest oil refinery in the U.S. These emissions come from just stopping and restarting petrochemical plants to defend against dangerous storms.
This pattern is playing out Thursday all around the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura. A refinery owned by Natgasoline in Beaumont, Texas, said it released 1,750 tons of carbon dioxide in its restart after being spared by the powerful storm, which made landfall about 30 miles away. Other plants in the Sulphur, Louisiana, area continued flaring gas as part of usual operations, including the Westlake Chemical Corp. petrochemical site; a spokesman said production at that complex was slowed but not shut down for the storm.
Environment Texas, a watchdog group, expects to see a surge of pollutants dumped during the rebooting of chemical plants that were deactivated in the state. Within the first 12 hours after Hurricane Laura’s landfall, the group estimated that some 2,000 tons of emissions had been released in Jefferson County so far. The total from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was around 4,000 tons of polluting chemicals.
“Basically this is a huge and not routine event,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. For the Motiva Chemical plant alone, he added, the emissions are “much larger than what we see from this facility normally, and it will likely be one of the largest events for the year for this area.”
Motiva released a statement saying its facilities sustained minimal damage and would be reactivated “as soon as it is safe to do so.” Natgasoline didn’t immediately respond.
Emissions from storm shutdowns are particularly concerning because they are concentrated into a short time period. Facilities in Texas must report the release of chemicals before and after a storm to state regulators, and they have up to two weeks to make full disclosure.
Some of the chemicals being released, such as benzenes and toluene, are toxic to human health even in small amounts. Before the storm, regulators in Texas and Louisiana deactivated many air monitors that would normally register benzene levels and other pollution.
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