Project Will Address Risk of Flood-Induced Chemical Spills at Gulf Coast Facilities

National Academy of Sciences grant will support mapping of at-risk facilities and efforts to mitigate pollution through natural infrastructure

November 10, 2020
Jacques Hebert

(AUSTIN, TX – Nov. 10, 2020) The Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has awarded Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) with a three-year Healthy Ecosystems grant to examine and address the vulnerability of petrochemical facilities along Galveston Bay to flood-induced chemical spills and releases. In a robust partnership with the Galveston Bay Foundation and Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, College of Engineering, School of Public Health and College of Architecture, EDF will conduct modeling and analysis to identify which facilities are most at risk and what solutions, such as natural infrastructure, might reduce those risks and lessen impacts to nearby communities and ecosystems. This unique collaboration leverages expertise across multiple disciplines that will inform strategies for other vulnerable coastal areas with heavy industrial footprints, such as in neighboring Louisiana.

The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season has provided a stark reminder of how vulnerable petrochemical facilities are to the effects of storm surge and excessive rainfall. The Environmental Protection Agency received 31 reports of oil and chemical spills in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura. In the last 15 years, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Harvey also caused large-scale spills and releases of chemicals that had widespread health and environmental impacts.

“Climate change and extreme weather are increasing the risk of flood-induced chemical spills, particularly across the Gulf Coast,” said Elena Craft, Senior Director, EDF Climate and Health. “This vulnerability poses serious health risks to nearby residents and threatens vulnerable ecosystems. We must act now to identify what facilities are most at risk of flooding and work to reduce those risks before the next storm.”

“In order to make informed decisions that ensure the U.S. Gulf Coast region remains resilient — and habitable — for future generations, we need to understand much better the connections between natural processes and human activities in the region,” said Laura Windecker, program officer for the GRP. “This grant opportunity encourages research that is actionable to help conserve our valuable ecosystems, while also protecting people’s health and livelihood.”

Toxic releases and chemical spills are man-made disasters that compound the damages of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, and often exacerbate existing inequalities and systemic racism. Low-income, underserved communities along the Gulf Coast are at greatest risk from releases of chemical contaminants. These releases can also result in closure of fishing grounds, with devastating effects to commercial fishing fleets and related jobs.

“Galveston Bay, like the wider Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana, is vulnerable to episodic storms, heavy rainfall, flooding and sea level rise,” said Capt. Greg Ball, President, Galveston Professional Boatmen’s Association. “Flooding-related damage from hurricanes including Katrina and Harvey has triggered releases of petroleum products and chemical contaminants, affecting the air, waterways and surrounding neighborhoods. The proposed project will fill critical gaps in our understanding about the health risk to people and ecosystems due to toxics that may be released as a result of weather- and climate-related events.”

Specific focus areas of research will include: 

  • Examining the Texas and Louisiana coasts as areas highly vulnerable to climate-induced flooding that also have some of the densest concentration of petrochemical facilities in the world.
  • Analyzing how historical and recent environmental releases of pollutants have affected contaminant loading in marine organisms.
  • Identifying where and how natural and nature-based features may reduce flood risks and mitigate environmental releases, lessen adverse impacts to human and ecological health and promote resilience of coastal communities and ecosystems.
For more information about this grant, see this release from the National Academies.  

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