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Mixing Water and Poison

Anchored in flood-prone areas in every U.S. state are more than 2,500 sites that handle toxic chemicals, a New York Times analysis of federal floodplain and industrial data shows. About 1,400 are in areas at highest risk of flooding.

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ANDREW W. LEHREN, New York Times

Anchored in flood-prone areas in every U.S. state are more than 2,500 sites that handle toxic chemicals, a New York Times analysis of federal floodplain and industrial data shows. About 1,400 are in areas at highest risk of flooding.

As flood danger grows — the consequence of a warming climate — the risk is that there will be more toxic spills like the one that struck Baytown, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey swamped a chemicals plant, releasing lye. Or like the ones at a Florida fertilizer plant that leaked phosphoric acid and an Ohio refinery that released benzene.

Flooding nationwide is likely to worsen because of climate change, an exhaustive scientific report by the federal government warned last year. Heavy rainfall is increasing in intensity and frequency.

At the same time, rising sea levels combined with more frequent and extensive flooding from coastal storms like hurricanes may increase the risk to chemical facilities near waterways.

The Times analysis looked at sites listed in the federal Toxic Release Inventory, which covers more than 21,600 facilities across the country that handle large amounts of toxic chemicals harmful to health or the environment.

Of those sites, more than 1,400 were in locations the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers to have a high risk of flooding. An additional 1,100 sites were in areas of moderate risk. Other industrial complexes lie just outside these defined flood-risk zones, obscuring their vulnerability as flood patterns shift and expand.

The presence of chemical sites in areas vulnerable to flooding is a holdover from an age where the advantages to industry of proximity to rivers and oceans — for transportation and trade, or for a ready supply of cooling water — seemingly outweighed the risks. “Waterfronts are changing as a result of sea level rise,” said Jeanne Herb, an environmental policy expert at Rutgers University who has researched hazards posed by climate-related flooding to industries in New Jersey.

“More often than not, these are facilities are on the water for a reason,” she said. “So how do we make sure that there are protections in place? That’s the big question.”

Federal law does not explicitly require sites in floodplains that handle toxic chemicals to take extra precautions against flooding. Nor do most states or local governments have such rules.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2015 requiring planners of federally funded buildings, roads and other infrastructure to account for the effect of possible flooding from rising sea levels or more extreme precipitation. President Donald Trump rescinded those rules last year.

The Times analysis focused on facilities on the federal toxic release database, which tracks sites handling chemicals that could be harmful to health and the environment if released. The list does not include places like Superfund sites or wastewater facilities, or chemical sites where the predominant risks are fire or explosion, as opposed to toxic pollution.

The Times also examined reports of oil and chemical spills tallied by the National Response Center, which is run by the U.S. Coast Guard. Companies are required by law to report spills to the NRC, although that database has been criticized as incomplete.

Still, the data does provide a glimpse into the thousands of spills that occur across the country each year.

Texas: Chemical Plant

By the time the murky floodwaters had receded from the sprawling Chevron Phillips chemical plant in Baytown, 34,000 pounds of sodium hydroxide and 300 pounds of benzene — both highly toxic — had escaped through a damaged valve. The plant, a joint venture between Chevron and Phillips 66, is one of many that filled the region’s streets with a stew of chemicals, debris and waste in the days after Hurricane Harvey and its torrential rains.

Employees later pumped some of the tainted water into 80 steel tanks. But most of the product “was lost in the floodwater,” David Gray, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman based in Dallas, said in an email.

A Chevron Phillips spokesman, Bryce Hallowell, declined to give further details of the spill. He stressed that the plant “was at the center of this incredibly powerful storm.”

The chemical site lies in a moderate-risk flood zone, defined by the government as having a 0.2 percent chance of flooding in any year. It was at least the third time in three years that the Chevron Phillips facility blamed heavy downpours for chemical leaks.

The spills underscore the vulnerability of America’s coastal industries to rising sea levels and extreme weather. This is the case along the Gulf Coast because the country’s oil, gas and petrochemicals industries are concentrated there. At least 46 facilities reported an estimated 4.6 million pounds of airborne emissions beyond state limits between Aug. 23 and Aug. 30, 2017, the week spanning Harvey’s approach and landfall in Texas. The Chevron Phillips plant also reported one of the largest Harvey-related emissions of chemicals into the air.

But even as flooding risks increase, chemical companies continue to build in vulnerable areas.

Florida: Fertilizer Plant

When Tropical Storm Debby brought torrential rain to north and central Florida in mid-2012, it triggered a release of phosphoric acid from a chemical plant in White Springs that produces phosphates, which are used to make fertilizer.

Flooding knocked out the power supply to its pumping system, causing water mixed with chemicals to spill into a storm-retention pond, which eventually also overflowed into a creek that feeds the Suwannee River. Released in large quantities into the environment, phosphates and phosphoric acid can cause uncontrolled algae and duckweed growth, causing oxygen levels in lakes and rivers to drop precipitously.

“It was like the biblical flood,” said Mike Williams, a spokesman for Nutrien, which runs the phosphates plant in an area dotted with high-risk flood zones, defined by the government as having a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. The plant had prepared for the storm by lowering water levels at the ponds, but the flooding was “well off the charts,” he said.

Since then, the plant has invested in pumps and backup generators that would allow it to more effectively control excess floodwater.

Alabama: Plastics Plant

Floods, and the risks they pose to industrial sites, are not confined to the coasts or even to areas the government considers flood-prone.

Record-breaking rains brought flooding to wide swaths of Alabama in May, inundating storage ponds at a Sabic Innovative Plastics plant on the banks of the Alabama River. About 4,500 pounds of sodium hydroxide escaped into a tributary.

The same plant, which is not on land considered flood-prone under federal guidelines, had flooded in 2011, releasing 125 gallons of tetrachloroethylene, according to a cleanup agreement reached with regulators. Tetrachloroethylene is a carcinogen and can affect the nervous system.

Shelia Naab, a Sabic spokeswoman, said the plant had been inundated with “extraordinarily high levels of rain in a very short period of time” and that levels in its ponds had reached unprecedented levels.

“We do not believe there was a significant environmental impact as a result of this incident,” she said. The plant has since updated a stormwater bypass that stops rainwater from overrunning its storage ponds, she said.

The flooding at Sabic underscores how floodplain designations may be increasingly outdated as rains intensify and weather patterns change.

“Companies need to think carefully about the risks of flood, and the increased risks from climate change,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Saying ‘We’ve always done it this way’ doesn’t work anymore.”

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