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10 Years After Katrina, Gulf Region Needs Effective Chemical Safety Rules

by Taylor Smith-Hams

August 26, 2015

A decade after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is one of several communities in the Gulf Region still exposed to the unsafe operations of hazardous industries.

At Murphy Oil Refinery After Hurricane Katrina

The Murphy Oil Refinery spilled 19,500 barrels (1,072,500 gallons) of crude oil in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Much of the oil flowed into residential neighborhoods around the refinery, making the areas uninhabitable. At the time, local residents reported attorneys working for Murphy seeking to buy their homes to expand the refinery and put a tank farm in their community.

© Greenpeace / Christian Åslun

Hurricane Katrina’s violent power shattered industry infrastructure, resulting in hundreds of oil spills and the release of hazardous substances. Katrina affected 466 industrial facilities and 24 Superfund sites.     

Massive industrial storage tanks failed to contain oil, gas, and chemicals under the force of the hurricane. At the Murphy Oil refinery, located next to a residential neighborhood in St. Bernard Parish, a 250,000 barrel storage tank was swept up in floodwaters and spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil into the surrounding community. A fertilizer plant in Mississippi released lethal gas into a nearby community when a tank of anhydrous ammonia ruptured.

Katrina and Industrial Disasters

More than 540 oil spills occurred during the combined chaos of Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which followed just a few weeks later. Bass Enterprises, Shell, Chevron, Venice Energy, and Murphy Oil were responsible for the biggest spills during the hurricanes, which occurred in Cox Bay, Pilottown, Empire, Venice, Meraux, and Port Fourchon in Louisiana. These spills combined released the same amount of oil—11 million gallons—as the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

People in the Gulf Region—many of whom have yet to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, subsequent storms, and levee failures—are exposed daily to the threat of an industrial disaster occurring near their homes, schools, and workplaces. This threat increases with hurricanes and severe storms.  

Those most vulnerable to the combination of a natural disaster and industrial disaster are primarily Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, Latinos, and Vietnamese-Americans, whose communities in the Gulf Region are surrounded by clusters of hazardous facilities. In a petition brought by Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled that these racially disproportionate pollution burdens violate the human right to equality.

Further Industrialization Expected

The ecological frailty of the Gulf Region caused by decades of environmental damage and heavy industrial activity amplified Katrina’s destruction. In the storm’s aftermath, the National Resources Defense Council noted, “a century of poor planning and industrial abuse has stripped away much of the Gulf Coast’s natural protection against storms and flooding.”

But instead of learning from the dangers of building a massive petrochemical industry in a region increasingly vulnerable to strong storms, the Obama Administration recently announced a plan that targets this area for more heavily polluting industrial activity.

The Louisiana Chemical Corridor has been included in the Obama administration’s new Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) program, making it “eligible for millions in federal funding to further its manufacturing resurgence.”

Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor includes the area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, infamously known as “Cancer Alley,” where communities established long before industrial development now suffer a high cancer mortality rate in the shadows of more than 200 petrochemical facilities.

By providing this financial incentive to industry, the administration ignores the human rights of people in the Gulf Region and institutionalizes their communities in the Chemical Corridor as a national sacrifice zone.

Making Safety a Priority

No new hazardous facilities should be sited in this vulnerable region, and any existing ones should be required to adopt inherently safer processes. All existing facilities in the corridor must also be retrofitted to improve safety and reduce pollution hazards.

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepares new chemical plant safety rules next month, it should keep in mind the dangers that petrochemical facilities pose to people in the Gulf Region. Requirements for safer practices are the only way to reduce the hazards that communities near these dangerous facilities face everyday, especially during hurricane season.

Take action and tell President Obama to use his authority and make sure the EPA includes requirements for safer practices in its upcoming chemical plant safety rules.

Taylor Smith-Hams

By Taylor Smith-Hams

Taylor Smith-Hams is the toxics intern at Greenpeace USA.

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