Environmentalists to visit U.S. petrochemical sites hit by Hurricane Laura

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Environmental groups on Thursday were preparing to send teams to petrochemical and oil production sites checking for oil, gas and chemical releases after Hurricane Laura moved out of the area.

Plumes of smoke rise into the sky from a chemical plant fire in a damaged area after Hurricane Laura passed through Lake Charles, Louisiana, U.S. August 27, 2020. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Laura hit the U.S. Gulf Coast on Thursday with winds of 150 miles per hour (240 kmh), halting operations at petrochemical plants in Texas and Louisiana, and sending 600,000 fleeing inland.

State environmental agencies also began gearing up to start damage assessments, but the exact amount of pollution released may not be fully known. Texas shut down 42 air monitors to prevent damage to the devices. Some had returned to service on Thursday morning, officials said.

Plant shutdowns released 4.35 million pounds of pollutants including hydrogen sulfide, benzene and nitrogen oxides, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. It will deploy emergency response teams Friday, a spokesman said.

Louisiana’s environmental agency will start assessments “as soon as the weather settles,” a spokesman said. State workers were stationed near Lake Charles, where plumes of smoke filled the air from a blaze at a nearby chlorine manufacturing plant.

Police shut the main artery through the state because of the plume of chemical smoke. Firefighters were at BioLab, a Westlake manufacturer of home and pool chemicals.

Environmental groups said they plan to conduct their own independent tests. During 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, tests by university researchers and others turned up significant pollution from storm-damaged facilities.

“I don’t think any state is prepared to conduct air monitoring at a scale that is needed because of the sheer size of these geographic areas,” said Elena Craft, senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund.

EDF, researchers at Texas A&M University’s Superfund Research Center and the Sierra Club planned to run checks of Superfund sites or petrochemical and fuel plants.

“We’re concerned about storm surge impacts,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, an organizer with the Sierra Club, adding it also hopes to send an aircraft offshore for visual inspections.

Reporting by Jennifer Hiller in Houston, Liz Hampton in Denver and Erwin Seba in Houston; Editing by Matthew Lewis