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When Natural Disasters Ignite Man-made Disasters

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Over the last two weeks, a series of powerful hurricanes have spawned in the Gulf of Mexico; devastating large swathes of land, killing dozens, and causing billions of dollars in damage. While there is no way to tie any individual storm event to climate change (e.g. saying that a storm wouldn’t have happened if not for human activity), the fact is that global warming increases the amount of heat energy in the atmosphere, driving greater overall storm activity and higher evaporation/rainfall. If climate change isn’t corrected for, these massive storm systems will only become more common.

Not all of the consequences of natural disasters are naturally occurring—some are man-made disasters which are simply triggered by the damage from the natural disaster. These man-made crises are typically avoidable, but the current levels of corruption and lack of care for environmental in our seats of power has made us extremely vulnerable compound natural/man-made disasters. In the face of climate change and the credible predictions that we will face even more storms like these, it is extremely important that we prevent these man-made disasters before they happen.

Before getting into how natural disasters can trigger man-made ones, let’s start with a short recap of the four storms:

First, Hurricane Harvey—a category 4 storm—made a landfall in Texas, delivering approximately 52 inches of rain on the Houston area. Harvey caused catastrophic flooding throughout the entire region and displaced millions of Americans. At least 70 Americans are dead and a large portion of Houston residents will have to replace virtually everything they own, if not rebuild their house, in the aftermath of the flood damage.

Second, Irma—a category 5 storm and the most powerful recorded in the Gulf—struck Florida, causing catastrophic flooding in Miami, Jacksonville and Naples, and then traveled north, through Georgia and South Carolina. There have been 7 American deaths due to Irma and many Floridians will not regain power for up to several weeks.

Third, Katia struck Mexico, which was already recovering from a massive earthquake. Fortunately, only 3 Mexicans died and the damage done to property appears to be minimal. Flooding impacted many neighborhoods, but it wasn’t on the same scale as what the USA experienced in Houston.

Fourth, Jose is currently sitting offshore and may take one of many paths, some of which bring it north along the East Coast and others would have it spin off into the Atlantic. Fortunately, regardless of which path it takes, it appears that Jose will stay far enough offshore that it will not pose a significant threat to American lives (there is a chance that the Bahamas may get struck).

Man-made Crises Triggered by Natural Disasters

Natural disasters can easily precipitate man-made disasters by worsening existing problems and hitting vulnerabilities in our infrastructure. The best modern example of this is the Fukashima nuclear disaster, where a 15-meter tsunami generated by a local earthquake destroyed the generators that powered the cooling system of the Fukushima nuclear plant. The poor design of the facility, including generators located within a flood zone, caused a meltdown in three of the plant’s reactors releasing massive amounts of radiation and rendering the entire site hazardous.

While this is an extreme example, a similar dynamic has played out in the United States numerous times: poorly regulated industrial sites, chemical plants, power plants, and waste disposal sites are struck with a natural disaster that triggers an avoidable catastrophe that should have never been allowed to persist.

During Hurricane Harvey, an Arkema chemical plant in Crosby Texas lost power and its refrigeration system was shut off. Because the plant stored unstable peroxide molecules that begin to decompose and become extremely unstable if not cooled properly, there were two massive explosions at the facility. While nobody was killed, the chemical fires from the plant hospitalized 15 firefighters (all of whom have been cleared to go home) and virtually destroyed several areas of the facility.

Arkema has been extremely successful in lobbying against safety regulations being imposed on their facility. Through the American Chemistry Council lobbying group, they have donated millions of dollars to politicians—both in Texas and on the national level—to delay or stop new EPA safety rules on chemical storage and reporting. They argue that significant safety regulations cost too much money and that they are perfectly capable of upholding safety standards.

The Arkema plant may be the most visible example of a man-made crisis triggered by these four Hurricanes (it is the only explosion so far), but it is by no means the only one. According to regulators, 46 industrial sites released hazardous chemicals during the week Harvey struck Texas. This list of sites that had a spill includes a Valero refinery site that leaked enough Benzene (an explosive airborne carcinogen) into the atmosphere to trigger alarms in several Houston suburbs. Given the nature of some of the chemicals leaked, there is simply no way to know what harms may have been done to human life, as health impacts may not show up in those affected for years (e.g. exposure to benzene can cause leukemia years after you are exposed).

Unfortunately, the natural/man-made disaster crisis was also illustrated by Hurricane Irma. Florida is home to over 50 “superfund” sites, which are so polluted that they are a danger to human life. Before Irma struck, the EPA identified 6 of these sites as extremely high risk of creating toxic runoff and did everything in their power to secure and prepare the sites for storm flooding. We simply do not know how effective these efforts were, as there hasn’t been time or opportunity to measure the levels of contamination in many of these areas.

If humanity keeps creating superfund sites through uncontrolled pollution, it will increase the number of areas where storms could flood residential neighborhoods with toxic water. Florida is uniquely vulnerable to this given its low elevation and presence in the path of Hurricane tracks, but large portions of the coastal US are also vulnerable. In fact, Harvey also hit 13 vulnerable superfund sites in Texas, some of which are storing barrels of toxic waste, but the EPA has only been able to check 2 for leaks, as 11 are in areas that are so flooded that they are inaccessible.

An Avoidable Danger

Adhering to proper safety precautions is more expensive for industry than simply hoping for the best and cutting corners, but it will prevent many of these spills and crises from emerging during natural disasters. Sadly however, industry lobbying and campaign donations have managed to override public safety concerns in many areas of the nation, and our elected officials are turning a blind eye to reckless corner-cutting. This endangers everybody in these areas and creates a dynamic where the public is accepting risk for the chemical companies.

By cutting corners on safety, these companies make more money, but their profits are paid for through increasing the risk that your home will become a toxic waste site if there is a disaster sometime in the future. In effect, you are being forced to subsidize the profits of these industries and family’s health becomes collateral in their bet that nothing will go wrong. While this would be unacceptable under normal circumstances, the reality of climate change increasing the frequency of these disasters in the future makes this bet doubly unacceptable.

To avoid catastrophe, we must re-regulate industry and require them to uphold the highest safety standards. This will require us to fight against  their lobbying effort and the politicians who have been purchased to their side, but it is a necessary fight if we wish to protect the health of our families and neighbors.

 

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