In oil-producing regions, even minor hurricanes cause major environmental damage

The red dots show the path of Hurricane Isaac, while the orange dots mark the location of pollution reports received by the National Response Center between Aug. 28 and Sept. 11, 2012. (SkyTruth map from the Gulf Monitoring Consortium report "Lessons From Hurricane Isaac: Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Facilities Still Not Storm Ready.")

We're now approaching the peak of hurricane season, with forecasters predicting a higher-than-average number of storms this year. As many as three to five are expected to develop into Category 3 or stronger hurricanes with winds of at least 111 miles per hour.

But it doesn't take a major storm to wreak environmental havoc on a coastal area -- especially one that's home to oil and gas production facilities.

A report released this month by the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) looked at the environmental damage reported after Hurricane Isaac, a relatively mild Category 1 storm that made landfill in Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River on Aug. 28, 2012. GMC members -- Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, SkyTruth, SouthWings, and the Waterkeeper Alliance's Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper program -- collect, analyze and publish information on oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We all knew this hurricane was coming -- it wasn't a surprise," said Meredith Dowling, SouthWings' Gulf program director. "Yet during post-storm overflights our volunteer pilots saw sheen on the floodwaters near refineries."

A total of 130 accidents resulting from the storm were reported to the National Response Center, the federal office that collects information on oil and chemical spills in U.S. waters. Those accidents dumped at least 12.9 million gallons of pollutants and contaminated water and 192 tons of gases into the environment, according to the facilities' own self-reported data. Among the chemicals released were known neurotoxins and carcinogens including crude oil and benzene.

Despite the fact that forecasts warned of the storm's arrival days in advance, some of the polluting facilities still used the weather as an excuse for releases, the report notes:

For example, Motiva Refinery in St. Charles Parish blamed the weather for its pollution, while the Valero refinery next door shut down in advance of the hurricane and reported no incident. The Motiva refinery encountered major problems and had to send workers out in the middle of the storm to tie down equipment.

Instead of acknowledging this failure its report to [the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality], the refinery said the pollution was "from the unexpected shutdown and restart of the site before and during inclement weather due to landfall of Hurricane Isaac."

Motiva Enterprises is a Houston-based joint venture between Shell and Saudi Refining Inc. that produces, distributes and markets oil products in the eastern and southern United States.

ExxonMobil's refinery in Chalmette, La. also did not shut down before Isaac arrived, and flare pilots used to burn off pollution experienced outages. The company asked state and federal officials to "exercise enforcement discretion and not seek penalties" for what happened during Isaac, blaming the flare outages on "higher than normal rain and wind volumes."

But it's not as if Isaac's rain and wind should have taken ExxonMobil by surprise, as the GMC observed:

Hurricanes typically bring "higher than normal" rain and winds. What's more, weather forecasts predict more intense conditions days in advance, so refineries should not be surprised when such conditions arise. In many of these cases the weather was described as an uncontrollable anomaly, not a predictable event that can be accommodated.

Coming soon to a beach near you?

Other Louisiana oil and gas production facilities also experienced pollution problems during Hurricane Isaac:

* The Marathon Refinery in Garyville dumped 12.6 million gallons of untreated stormwater runoff from its process areas into Lake Maurepas, an ecosystem that's already severely stressed.

* At the Phillips 66 refinery in Belle Chasse, oil wastewater overflowed the plant's collection system. The refinery is located on the Mississippi River.

* Even though the Valero refinery in St. Charles Parish shut down in advance of the storm, it still experienced a spill of 47 gallons of slop oil, including 7.8 pounds of cancer-causing benzene.

* Following the storm, satellite images showed the presence of a small slick from an improperly closed Chevron offshore oil well, while a flyover found several other oil leaks at offshore sites and from oil production and storage tank facilities.

And Isaac wasn't unique in causing widespread environmental pollution from oil and gas facilities. In 2008, the Associated Press reported that Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 storm, caused "at least 448 releases of oil, gasoline and dozens of other substances into the air and water and onto the ground in Louisiana and Texas."

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan, a Category 3 storm, triggered an undersea landslide that wiped out a Taylor Energy platform off the Louisiana coast; nearly nine years later, crude oil continues to ooze from that site into the Gulf of Mexico. And 2005's Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which both made landfall as Category 3 storms, led to the release of over 9 million gallons of oil from coastal and offshore facilities, including six major spills. Those two storms also destroyed 113 offshore oil and gas platforms and damaged 457 pipelines.

The GMC warns that these storm-related pollution problems could soon be coming to hurricane vulnerable coastal communities across the Southeast, where governors Pat McCrory of North Carolina, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Bob McDonnell of Virginia have joined forces to press the Obama administration to open up the federal waters off their coasts to energy exploration.

"We want the citizens of regions considering new and expanded offshore oil and gas to know this is what happens when a storm hits," said David Manthos of SkyTruth. "It's a big deal to see how much damage can come from a routine tropical storm."