When Hurricanes Lead to Industrial Fires, Minority Neighborhoods Can Take a Hit
A fire blazed, and acrid smoke poured from a Louisiana chemical factory, confirming fears that Hurricane Laura’s ravaging winds and water would release toxic pollution in a region central to the petrochemical industry that is increasingly exposed to major storms.
The Louisiana governor, John Bel Edwards, warned residents around the burning site, a Biolab Inc. plant near Lake Charles, to shelter in place and to “close your windows and doors and TURN OFF YOUR AIR CONDITIONING UNITS.”
The Louisiana and Texas coastlines, which have endured many storms over the decades, are studded with sprawling facilities that produce fuel, plastics and other products. And while no one is safe when a hurricane strikes, poor and largely Black neighborhoods often located near industrial sites are particularly vulnerable.
Biolab is one of more than a dozen industrial facilities near one such community, Mossville, whose residents have long been exposed to the pollution that modern chemical manufacturing produces.
“The Biolab facility that’s burning out of control right now is part of the toxic soup that Mossville residents have been exposed to for decades,” said Monique Harden, assistant director of law and policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans.
Communities close to industrial sites like Mossville, and the Westside neighborhood of Port Arthur, Texas, live with pollution levels that affect health. “The fence-line community is the one that’s bearing the burden of pollution and industrial encroachment,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and co-chairman of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, an advocacy group devoted to addressing racism. “It’s just that simple,” he said.
“That’s not to say white people won’t get hurt” when storms come, he said. “Whoever is in the path will get hurt.” However, “It’s almost predictable who will get the worst of it.”
President Obama had moved to strengthen chemical disaster rules, adopting new regulations that would, among other measures, better disclose what hazardous chemicals are stored at industrial facilities and require companies to submit to independent investigations after accidents. But after lobbying by a coalition of chemical and fossil fuel industry groups, who argued that the new rules would “impose costly and burdensome obligations on facilities,” the Trump administration reversed those stricter standards.
The E.P.A. estimates that the rollback will save Americans roughly $88 million per year. However, the changes mean that it will be more difficult for local communities, as well as emergency responders like firefighters, to know what hazardous chemicals are stored at local industrial sites.
When Tropical Storm Harvey hit Houston and the surrounding area in 2017, pollution followed: 46 facilities in 13 counties reported an estimated 4.6 million pounds of airborne emissions that exceeded state limits, and at least 14 toxic waste sites were flooded or damaged, raising fears of waterborne contamination. Floodwaters inundated a chemical plant in the suburb of Crosby, damaging a cooling system at the site and triggering an explosion.
A storm the size of Laura hitting Houston would be a nightmare, said Terence O’Rourke, an environmental lawyer with the Harris County Attorney’s office. “You don’t want it to hit the largest petrochemical complex in the United States,” he said. “If it’s got to hit somewhere, somewhere else is better.”
However, no matter which path Hurricane Laura took, major industrial facilities would have very likely been nearby.
Up the coast from Houston toward Louisiana, the industrial area known as the Golden Triangle contains many large refineries and chemical plants. Port Arthur has the Motiva oil refinery, North America’s largest. Beaumont has a major Exxon Mobil refinery, and refineries along the Sabine-Neches ship channel make most of the nation’s military jet fuel.
Farther east, the city of Orange has dozens of chemical plants, and, across the Sabine River, which separates Texas from Louisiana, the chain continues, with Lake Charles home to a cluster of major chemical plants, including the Sasol Chemicals complex, owned by a South African company. Many more plants are planned.
“This whole area is target rich for a hurricane, with serious environmental consequences,” said Jim Blackburn, the co-director of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation From Disaster Center.
While some of the facilities were designed to withstand storms, climate change is making hurricanes and flooding more damaging, potentially rendering the old defenses inadequate. The Port Arthur refinery has a 14-foot levee, but the Hurricane Laura storm surge estimate was for water as high as 20 feet.
“We have a lot of hubris about how smart we are and how well we can build,” Mr. Blackburn said, “but if we don’t build for the right storm event, it’s not going to work.”
Biolab, the site of Thursday’s fire, specializes in making pool and spa cleaning products, according the website of its parent company, KIK Custom Products. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that the Biolab site stores large amounts of chlorine, which poses a fire and explosion risk.
A chlorine leak from the Biolab facility appeared to have started the fire. Colonel Kevin W. Reeves, the Superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, said that an “undetermined” amount of the leaked chlorine had begun generating heat and burning, releasing gas into the atmosphere.
The crew at the Biolab made several “unsuccessful” attempts to extinguish the flames, Mr. Reeves said, which began at some point during the course of the storm. By late Thursday, the fire had reached a “stable point,” he said.
Over the past 10 years, the Biolab site has released more than 170,000 pounds of chlorine to the air, including 21,900 pounds last year, E.P.A. data shows. More than 1,500 people live within a 3-mile radius of the plant, of which 30 percent are minorities, and about a third of households earn less than $25,000 a year, half Louisiana’s median household income.
Daniel Hoadley, a spokesman for Biolab’s parent company, KIK Custom Products, said the chemical plant had been evacuated when the hurricane hit and damaged the site, starting a fire. All employees were safe, he said, and the company was working with emergency responders to minimize chemical releases.
Getting through storms and recovery is more difficult for vulnerable communities, Dr. Bullard said, noting that it’s tougher for poorer people, who may lack money or transportation, to relocate out of harm’s way. They must rely on FEMA buses and disaster shelters that, during the pandemic, could become incubators for the coronavirus.
“Covid has provided another level of complexity to the whole thing,” Dr. Bullard said.
One of the problems, Ms. Harden said, is that the law gives government officials broad discretion about who gets help and how much. She cited the sparring over aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. “The potential for a community to be neglected, or to be put in a worse situation, is always present under the law,” she said.
Federal aid can also have the effect of widening the gap between rich and poor, as more aid flows to higher-income areas.
Meanwhile, Mossville, a historically Black community founded by an ex-slave, is disappearing, largely displaced by Lake Charles’ industrial expansion.
Delma Bennett, president of the Concerned Citizens of Mossville, noted that much of his community has been bought out by the encroaching Sasol plant. He still has a home there, he said, but he and his wife moved to Lake Charles to gain a little distance from the pollution. “She felt she was getting sick,” he said, “because of Mossville.”