Are Houston's petrochemicals safe from hurricanes?

October 6, 2008 10:16:51 AM PDT
When Hurricane Ike was on its trajectory for the petrochemical industry clustered here, the storm had the makings of an environmental nightmare unlike anything in U.S. history. ROAD TO RECOVERY: How you can help | School closings | Person locator | Important phone numbers | Assistance from FEMA | Filing a claim | Latest power numbers

Of course, that didn't happen. Ike's storm surge was less severe than feared and the floodwalls, levees and bulkheads built around the region's heavy industry generally held. Some hazardous material spilled, but nothing to cause the widespread environmental damage some feared.

But many of the plants and refineries are protected by a 1960s-era, 15-foot-high levee system built by the Army Corps of Engineers that is strikingly similar to the one around New Orleans that failed catastrophically during Katrina.

"The industry clearly is aware that these facilities are located in an area vulnerable to hurricanes," said John Felmy, chief economist with the American Petroleum Institute.

The shortcomings are plain to see.

For example, Texas City -- home to seven massive facilities run by industry giants like the Dow Chemical Co., BP and Valero -- is surrounded by a ring levee system that includes earthen levees without erosion-control concrete, long stretches of floodwalls similar to those that failed during Katrina and a mishmash of levee heights.

"They've got the same piles of dirt and flawed I-walls that destroyed New Orleans defending 22 percent of the nation's refining," said Robert Bea, a civil engineer and levee expert with the University of California-Berkeley.

The Corps of Engineers is aware of the danger.

"There certainly is risk and there certainly can and will be storms that may come along that will overtop those levees," said Col. David C. Weston, the corps' Galveston district commander.

"If you had 25 feet of surge, you'd be 10 feet over the top of those structures, and I would expect to see significant damage" to the refineries and other infrastructure, Weston said.

Katrina demonstrated that hurricanes and refineries are not a good mix.

The 2005 storm's floodwaters dislodged an oil tank at a Murphy Oil Corp. refinery in Meraux. The tank spilled 1 million gallons of oil into the surrounding neighborhoods, churches, canals and playgrounds. It was one of the largest urban oil spills in U.S. history.

So far, Houston has not been clobbered with a Katrina-like hurricane.

Before Ike, the last major hurricane to hit was Hurricane Alicia in 1983, but its surge was less than Ike's. Before that, Hurricane Carla struck in 1961, flooding refineries. That storm served as the wake-up call to build levees.

After the success of the levees against Ike, though, Texas officials may hit the snooze button.

"Did we flood? Not a drop," said Matthew Doyle, the Texas City mayor. "Our levee system did what they were supposed to do. The corps doesn't seem too concerned, either."

How about building the levees higher and stronger?

"Why? They've held every time," Doyle said.

Weston, the corps commander, said neither Congress nor local authorities have shown much interest in getting the district to study building an improved system.

However, Weston said modeling based on new storm surge data is being done to determine the system's reliability. If that modeling shows concern, then the corps might propose doing more to upgrade the levees, Weston said. But that research is still a year or more away from completion.

For Tom Smith, an environmental advocate with Public Citizen in Austin, Texas is in denial.

"The Houston-Galveston-Brazoria County area has the highest concentration of toxins in the United States on a per-square-mile basis," he said.

"There has not been a great deal of thought to the vast volume of toxins that might be released in a substantial hurricane," he said, "and what that might do to the bays, estuaries and the entire Gulf."

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