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The Impact of Climate Change on Chemical Facilities near Communities

Assessing the social and environmental impacts of chemical facilities

Nature has more control over people’s lives than it might be thought. Natural disasters are one of the key factors that can alter the life quality of American citizens and even prove to be life-threatening. The most helpful tool connected to these environmental issues would be a strong focus on regulatory instruments.

Climate change is a global phenomenon occurring since the beginning of the 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. It has been driven primarily by environmentally destructive human activities such as cutting down forests, burning fossil fuels, and using modern transportation. For those who are still doubting climate change is real, there is plenty of evidence in this respect. Since 1950, the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been rising dramatically. The Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century, with the most warming happening during the past 40 years. 

However, climate change does not only affect the environment, as it also takes a heavy toll on chemical facilities located in low‐lying coastal areas such as the U.S. Gulf Coast, which are vulnerable to damage from hurricanes and flooding. These weather phenomena are increasing with climate change. If, for instance, a hurricane strikes a chemical facility that is not prepared to handle such a crisis, it can trigger industrial disasters such as explosions, fires, and major chemical releases. Unfortunately, most chemical plants throughout America do not have emergency responses for extreme weather events caused by climate change, which poses a tremendous risk to workers and the nearby communities.

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Hurricane Harvey, a Frightening Example of What Can Go Wrong When Chemical Facilities Lack Proper Emergency Responses

Referring to the interaction between natural disasters and industrial accidents, Natech accidents can result from natural events such as earthquakes, floods, and heavy storms. Nevertheless, they can also be the result of human factors such as operational errors and lack of maintenance or monitoring. A very good and eye-opening example of a recent Natech event is Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in 2017. Because it was so powerful, it caused over three feet of flooding that disabled the refrigeration system at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas. The aftermath was horrifying, to say the least, as 21 people required medical attention, while the other 200 within 1.5 miles of the facility had to evacuate, not being allowed to return home for a week.

Furthermore, a Chevron Phillips plant in Sweeny, Texas, was also hit by Hurricane Harvey, which resulted in roughly 170,000 pounds of chemicals being released. Onsite property damage was another terrible effect of the industrial disaster. Despite the awful repercussions, neither incident led to a significant impact on the nearby communities. Still, Texas is expected to be the leading state in the country in flood damage triggered by climate change, and the most tragic thing about it is that many vulnerable families reside in close proximity to its numerous chemical facilities. If chemical plants fail to develop strong, clear emergency responses for extreme weather events soon, they will no longer be able to avoid serious Natech events in the future.

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The Current Preparedness of Chemical Facilities to Deal with Natural Disasters Caused by Climate Change

Out of the 10,420 facilities that should have a Risk Management Plan, which includes chemical plants, over 3,200 – or 31% – are at high risk of being struck by extreme weather phenomena triggered by climate change. This is because they are located in areas that increase their vulnerability to natural disasters such as wildfires, inland flooding, coastal flooding, and storm surge from hurricanes. Climate change will inevitably make some natural disasters more frequent and intense. In turn, natural disasters may lead to the accidental releases of hazardous chemicals. For instance, flooding can inundate tanks and pipelines, causing corrosion, severance of pipe connections, and, eventually, a rupture. 

The Environmental Protection Agency’s officials informed the Government Accountability Office that the vulnerable chemical facilities across the United States face multiple challenges, including insufficient information and direction in managing risks stemming from natural disasters triggered by climate change. Nonetheless, a Government Accountability Office review found that the agency has a shortage of credentialed Risk Management Plan inspectors. In 2020, their number, including contractors, reached its lowest level – 35 inspectors – in a decade. As a consequence, the number of Risk Management Plan facilities that the Environmental Protection Agency inspects every year has declined since 2012 from 625 per year to just 284. 

Moreover, the Government Accountability Office found that the Environmental Protection Agency does not even consider natural disasters triggered by climate change or the social vulnerability of the surrounding communities when selecting chemical facilities for inspection. Failing to consider the possibility of a natural disaster striking and leading to industrial disasters such as hazardous chemical spills will keep facility managers in the dark about this dreadful possibility. Due to lack of information, they will not develop emergency responses for natural disasters brought about by climate change, which is a sure-fire way to endanger not only the health and safety of their workers but also those of the nearby communities.

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How Nearby Communities May Be Affected by Hazardous Chemical Leaks Caused by Climate Change

Within 50 miles of the U.S. Gulf Coast, there are approximately 872 chemical facilities at risk of being hit by natural disasters triggered by climate change. Over 4,374,000 people live in the surrounding areas of these chemical plants, whereas 1,717 schools and 98 medical facilities are located within 1.5 miles of these facilities. And these numbers concern only the chemical facilities situated along the U.S. Gulf Coast. According to cumulative data, the communities living close to chemical facilities are disproportionately exposed to environmental contamination. This is the result of environmental inequality. Proof of it is the distribution of social groups around a variety of environmental hazards throughout America, including hazardous waste sites, manufacturing facilities, superfund sites, and chemical accidents.

Often, a natural disaster such as a hurricane strikes without warning, so the people who reside nearby chemical facilities that might release hazardous substances into their environment do not have enough time to evacuate as a precaution. Therefore, the community may experience toxic exposure to chemicals such as PCBs, heavy metals, PFAS, or dioxins. For instance, Hurricane Harvey caused Buffalo Bayou water to have elevated concentrations of chromium, nickel, arsenic, and lead for two weeks after the storm. While in this case, the level of heavy metals did not exceed the safe drinking water limit, during a more powerful weather event, a dangerous concentration of harmful substances may end up in the water the community relies on. If people are unaware of the contaminants lurking in their drinking water or the environment, they may develop life-threatening diseases such as cancer over the years as a result of toxic exposure.

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Communities Living Near Chemical Facilities Should Thoroughly Prepare for a Potential Hazardous Substances Leak Caused by Climate Change

Nowadays, under the very real threat of climate change, every community living in close proximity to a chemical facility prone to being struck by natural disasters caused by climate change should have a clear, effective contingency plan in place. While these communities may struggle for national political attention on local environmental issues such as industrial disasters, people should unite and grab the attention of local politicians. The good news is that, sometimes, local governments can pass their own legislation requiring the chemical industry to comply with stricter environmental regulations. 

Even so, as a community located near a chemical facility, you should not rely solely on local authorities, as they can only do so much. You can take your own precautions to prevent being affected by a potential industrial disaster. As a first step, you should inquire about what chemicals the facility handles so that you can develop your emergency response accordingly. For instance, in the event of a toxic chemical spill that can reach your environment, you should have a plan to evacuate as soon as possible until the area of your residence becomes safe and inhabitable again. A good idea is to contact federal emergency response agencies for meetings and exercise dates, which will help you learn about the roles the community members can play and the responsibilities they can take during a crisis.

Climate change is inevitable and only escalating as a worldwide phenomenon. Still, this does not mean the chemical facilities and the nearby communities are doomed to experience industrial disasters such as hazardous substances leaks. With adequate and clever contingency plans in place, the managers of chemical facilities should be able to ensure their plants will not release dangerous substances during a natural disaster caused by climate change. Similarly, having a reliable emergency response as a community in the event of a chemical spill caused by extreme weather is the key to avoiding toxic exposure, which can wreak havoc on health and life quality.

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Jonathan Sharp

Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. The law firm, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in toxic exposure, assisting individuals and communities affected by hazardous substances.

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