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Nearly a third of hazardous chemical facilities in the United States are at risk from weather-related floods, storms and wildfires, according to a new analysis from the Government Accountability Office.
The federal watchdog analyzed more than 10,000 factories, refineries, water treatment plants and other facilities that manufacture, store or use hazardous chemicals. They discovered that more than 3,200 of them are located in places where they are damaged by rising sea levels, storm surges from hurricanes, wildfires or flooding from heavy rains. .
“Recent natural disasters have demonstrated the potential for natural hazards to trigger fires, explosions and releases of toxic chemicals at facilities,” note the report’s authors.
The report calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to require facilities to prepare for flooding, power outages and other effects of climate change.
Weather-induced storms have damaged many chemical plants, refineries and water treatment plants in recent years.
The most striking examples have taken place during hurricanes. In 2021, Hurricane Ida caused leaks and power outages at facilities from Louisiana to New Jersey. In 2020, Hurricane Laura forced tens of thousands of people near Lake Charles, Louisiana to shelter in place after a local chemical plant was damaged and began leaking dangerous chlorine gas. And, in 2017, flooding from Hurricane Harvey caused massive sewage leaks from water treatment plants and caused at least one chemical plant to burn and burn for days.
According to the report, flooding is by far the most widespread hazard.
Of the 3,219 facilities located at risk, more than 2,400 of them are at high risk of flooding, according to flood maps produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And in some places, the risk may be even higher than these maps suggest, because FEMA does not take into account long-term sea level rise or other types of climate-related flooding.
Insufficient or outdated information on weather risks makes it harder for businesses to prepare their facilities for the effects of climate change, according to the new report.
The facilities analyzed in the new report are located in all 50 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. They are concentrated in the industrial core of the country. Nearly 40% of facilities are located in the Midwest or Great Lakes regions, and approximately 30% are located in the 14 southern states between North Carolina and New Mexico.
In every region or state, some people are more at risk than others. The report notes that socially vulnerable people, including the poor, Indigenous people and black people, are more likely to live near facilities that use hazardous chemicals.
For example, if a flood causes chemicals to leak into the air or a hurricane causes a fire, people living nearby are most likely to be exposed to pollution while trying to cope with the damage caused. at their own house.
“It’s a terrible link between burden and vulnerability,” says Ana Baptista, professor of environmental policy at The New School. “You have communities that face a whole host of burdens in terms of exposure to pollution, and they may also have less means to evacuate in an emergency.”
The report suggests several ways the EPA can protect people by requiring companies that own these facilities to prepare for climate-related weather.
For example, if a chemical plant stores substances that ignite if left unrefrigerated, that plant must be prepared for the extended power outages that storms, heat waves, and wildfires can cause. Facilities located in flood prone areas need to ensure that they can keep water out of sensitive areas.
Such requirements are already included in regulations for facilities that handle hazardous chemicals. But the EPA can do a better job enforcing these regulations, according to the report. For example, the agency could prioritize inspections at facilities near vulnerable communities that are at high risk from climate change.
The EPA released a response to the report saying the agency “generally agrees” with the recommendations and setting out a multi-year timeline to reduce climate-related risks to hazardous chemical facilities.