In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey dropped more than 60 inches of rain on the Houston Ship Channel in Texas. The flat coastal plain is home to many of the barges, oil tankers, pipelines, storage tanks, and refineries that make up the petrochemical industry in the state. The devastating storm and subsequent flooding resulted in 8 million pounds of extra air pollution, according to NPR. Pollution was also released into waterways, and the chemicals stored at a company north of Houston caught fire. The crisis forced petrochemical plants to reassess disaster response, especially how potential public health risks are communicated with the surrounding community.
Tropical storms in the Gulf Coast are increasing in frequency and severity, and taking stock of the damage from Hurricane Harvey has potential value for the petrochemical industry. The new normal under a weather system impacted by climate change means that future storms could bring even greater damage, and facilities must be prepared for worst-case scenarios. Plant locations are often selected based on access to waterways, but as storms grow in severity and flood plains are redrawn, it’s increasingly important that these facilities are not built in susceptible areas. The chemical industry can minimize damage and health risks by avoiding building vulnerable structures in areas prone to flooding or with high-population density.
However, structures across the Gulf region, and in other areas of the country, will become increasingly susceptible to natural disaster, even while complying to safety standards. Amid record-breaking storms, it’s difficult to predict the force and speed with which a hurricane can descend on a region of the United States. For this reason, petrochemical companies should prepare for the worst-case scenario, and to communicate any critical damage to the community.
Building A Comprehensive Disaster Response Plan
Hurricane Harvey made landfall faster than previous storms, which presented unique safety challenges. In fact, the unpredictable nature of hurricanes and tropical storms should be reason enough for petroleum plant managers to reassess safety plans after each severe weather emergency. Each hurricane can bring different conditions - Hurricane Harvey was characterized by major flooding and levee damage, for example, but during storms, high-wind speeds and power outages can be a top concern. Annual reassessment should be part of any comprehensive disaster response plan, and it’s been shown to help petroleum manufacturers minimize damage.
The chemical company Covestro in Baytown, Texas, was able to prevent additional pollution as a result of Harvey largely because the of the safety lessons learned after Hurricane Ike in 2008, according to NPR. After Ike, Covestro moved critical servers and computers away from the bayou and into a building on higher ground. This way, even though the plant was flooded during Hurricane Harvey, the team was able to monitor and communicate what was going on. Covestro resumed operations less than two weeks after the storm.
Rod Herrick, who manages safety operations for Covestro, offered several other suggestions for storm preparedness. Several of these recommendations involve physical planning. Moving generators to higher ground is essential amid record floods, and companies can prevent water contamination by installing containers under tanks to manage leaks. There are also geodesic domes, which prevent the weight of rainwater from causing leaks in the top of tanks companies use to store hazardous materials. Herrick also recommended small actions employers can take to prevent disaster during a hurricane, such as stocking up on cleaning supplies and such as mops or brooms to sanitary products for employees. These are small things that ultimately add up to
Communication is key for managing an emergency such as a storm - both for internal operations and external communications. According to Bloomberg Environment, the KMCO petrochemical plant began preparations a week before Hurricane Harvey made landfall. As the storm approached, the company established a checkpoint system, secured the plant, and made sure the backup generator was equipped to support the plant for several days. Only essential employees were told to report to work, with a handful of operators, mechanics, and electricians remained on call during the height of the storm.
Effective communications can help a petrochemical plant prevent major leaks or other complications, however, these facilities should also prepare emergency communications for the worst-case scenario. During Hurricane Harvey, Arkema underestimated the damage from flooding, resulting in a series of explosions around the plant, as per Bloomberg environment. Company officials realized that the backup generator had failed, and that evacuating residents within a 1.5 mile radius would be necessary.
Communicating the disaster is essential during a high-risk emergency of this sort, and petrochemical companies must keep both employees and the surrounding community safe.
Leveraging Technology to Improve Community Safety
A mass notification system can be an essential tool for managing a petrochemical-related disaster during a storm. If residents are already receiving weather-related alerts, it’s important the local safety managers are providing updates as the storm develop. In a situation such as the Arkema fires, residents must be given an evacuation notice as quickly as possible. If the plant understands there is risk of fire, explosion, or other systematic malfunctions, evacuations should be considered in advance. If a plant has a comprehensive safety plan and risk is low, the safety managers can also use mass notification to assure the community that emergency procedures are in place during the storm.
The notification system can also be used to communicate internally. If only key personnel are going to be required during the storm, the petrochemical plant can communicate staffing changes to employees. This way, nobody nonessential will be on site or put in a situation where safety can be jeopardized.
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