NOCO, Louisiana-More than 72 hours after Hurricane Ida made landfall, black smoke was still emitting from the four towers of the Shell factory in Norco, Louisiana. Huge flames billowed from these towers in the center of the petrochemical zone called “Cancer Alley”, and thick smoke floated in the sky far from the factory.
The refinery has a history of severe combustion and compliance issues. In the past few years, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency have fined them for burning beyond the allowable range-the facility has been in trouble with state authorities for failing to prevent the emission of sulfur dioxide and other toxic chemicals.
As of at least Thursday, it is still unclear when the burning-plants releasing gases into the air, usually to relieve pressure and ensure safety-will stop.
Shell spokesperson Cindy Babski said: “Due to the impact of Hurricane Ida, Shell’s Norco manufacturing site has no power supply.” “Although the site is still safe and reliable, we are experiencing elevated Burning. We expect this situation to continue until electricity is restored.”
In answering a series of follow-up questions, Babski confirmed that the facility relies on electricity provided by Entergy, a utility company that provides services to parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Arkansas. Said it may take several weeks to restore power to the New Orleans metropolitan area. Babski said the company has no timetable to restore power to the factory.
It is unclear what exactly the facility is burning and how many are being sprayed into the air. The company must report unusual combustion activities to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for overseeing air quality in the state. A spokesperson for the agency told Grist that because the department’s records office had suspended normal operations due to hurricanes and power outages, they were not sure whether Shell had submitted a combustion report.
On the ground, residents noticed an increase in burning.A resident in the district near Ormond Manor called himself Brad and was clearing debris from the yard. He told Grist, “This is not normal. That’s an’oh damn’ thing.” Julie Demanski Report for DeSmog Many residents of Norco town stated that they had never seen such severe burning at the scene.
During the hurricane season, increased burning has become an annual event. Approximately 40 petrochemical plants were released when Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast in 2017 Approximately 5.5 million pounds of pollutants Into the atmosphere. During Hurricane Laura last year, A Grist analysis found that the Texas facility burned more than 4 million pounds of excess pollutants.
On the one hand, burning is a necessary evil to ensure operational safety. During a hurricane, when wind speeds are as high as 130 miles per hour and there is a possibility of flooding, refinery equipment is more likely to fail, and plant operators may suddenly need to shut down operations, forcing them to find a way to empty any equipment currently being processed Of petrochemical products. As a result, refineries usually burn tens of thousands of pounds or even millions of pounds of pollutants to avoid the dangerous accumulation of toxic chemicals.
With adequate planning and preparation, these flares can also be avoided. By shutting down operations in a controlled manner and installing equipment to prevent excessive combustion before the hurricane makes landfall, the refinery can prevent serious pollution incidents during the hurricane.
“Refineries and chemical plants have been doing better at reducing daily emissions,” said Dan Kehan, a professor at Rice University who studies fossil fuel infrastructure. “We have reached the point where a large number of emissions occur during these startup, shutdown, and failure events,” for example, when a facility loses power or a piece of equipment is damaged.
After the Ada incident, the torch can be observed in several major facilities in the New Orleans area. In particular, the smoke from Norco is deeper and thicker than the smoke from several other factories (including the nearby Valero and Marathon factories). Cohan said that considering the black smoke from the Noco Tower, he believes that many of the burning compounds are toxic.
Cohan said that most factories need some kind of backup power to avoid burning, but Shell’s backup power seems not enough. “The challenge for these sites is that hundreds of chemical processes produce dozens of toxic compounds, all of which require electricity to keep them functioning,” he said. “There are many things that can go wrong.”
Norco’s unusually large amount of burning may be explained by its long and tortuous history of non-compliance with environmental regulations. In 1988, A large-scale explosion occurred at the scene 7 workers were killed and 42 were injured, starting for a year Environmental justice movement initiated by residents Diamond, a small community sandwiched between the Norco factory and another Shell factory.Recently, in 2018, after officials discovered that Shell had illegally modified the company’s four torches to emit more emissions, the company Reach a settlement EPA and the Department of Justice. As part of the settlement agreement, Shell needs to spend $10 million to upgrade to reduce the emissions of the four torches. The settlement agreement also requires the company to reduce the amount of exhaust gas sent to the torch and pay a fine of 350,000 US dollars. A Shell spokesperson said that all the upgrades required by the consent order have been completed.
The Norco plant was also under scrutiny for emitting high levels of benzene, a toxic carcinogen. 2020 analysis of the environmental integrity project The facility was found to exceed the federal threshold for benzene levels that are safe for human exposure for most of 2019. However, by the end of the year, the company was able to reduce benzene emissions and meet health standards.
This year, the facility once again encountered problems with the environmental protection department. In June, the company released a large number of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, including sulfur dioxide, toluene, and volatile organic compounds. Although the company reported it to the Louisiana Environmental Protection Agency as an unpreventable event, The agency determined that the release is preventableThe staff forwarded the incident to law enforcement officials in the department for review.
Although Shell guarantees that the Norco plant is “safe and reliable”, several parts of the plant appear to be submerged by remnants of the Ida flash flood, with water levels exceeding two feet in many places. At the main entrance of the factory on Highway 61, a security guard threatened to sue a Grist reporter for taking photos of the flooded scene. “We have cameras that can record your license plate number,” she said.
The Norco facility is located along the Mississippi River and occupies some of the highest land in the parish. Therefore, it enjoys better flood protection capabilities than many nearby residential areas. A study by Darin Acosta Researchers at the University of New Orleans found that the Norco factory and nearby Shell Motiva refinery occupied nearly 75% of the high ground in the Parish of St. Charles. As a result, low-lying communities on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain were the first to bear the brunt of storm surge flooding.
In addition, Norco and other factories on the east bank of the Mississippi River are protected by a 20-foot embankment from flooding. Government officials can also open the nearby Bonnet Carre spillway during periods of high water levels to prevent the Mississippi River from overflowing its banks, making it unlikely that the river will cross the flood wall and enter the site.
Even so, the riverside land below the factory is low-lying and poorly drained, which means that flash floods and heavy rains caused by storms like Ida can cause water to accumulate quickly and stay for a long time.Shell did not answer questions about how the Ida flood affected the facility, but earlier this year The company reports equipment failures related to the flood Louisiana Environmental Protection Agency. In March, after heavy rains, an oil tank at the plant was “submerged and overflowed” into the surrounding area.
More detailed details of the impact of the Ada are still unclear, but the flooded site and the black smoke that have emerged prove how risky the oil production on the Gulf Coast is. The Shell factory and other surrounding factories seem to have survived the storm, and it is very likely that they will still appear in the next hurricane.
The question is what happens when the storm strikes.