On Saturday, August 25th I flew over the sprawling Phillips 66 Alliance Refinery in southern Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. This Southwings sponsored flight piloted by volunteer pilot, Lance Rydberg, allowed me to take aerial photographs of Alliance before the arrival of Hurricane Isaac. The vulnerability of this and other facilities from the potential impending hurricane-force winds and storm surge was of particular interest. As I peered down through my lens at the storage tanks full of oil and other toxic chemicals, I had a flash back to Hurricane Katrina and the Murphy Oil refinery storage tank in Meraux, Louisiana that flooded and leaked approximately 1 million gallons of oil throughout adjacent neighborhoods and canals. I had little hope and confidence that the various refineries in south Louisiana had really learned their lessons from Katrina and could only hope for the sake of our environment and communities that Isaac would weaken or shift course. That didn’t happen.
While I was hunkered down at the GRN headquarters in the days following Isaac and since our office still had power, I was able to review the photos I had taken on August 25th and use the internet to find out more information on the Alliance refinery. On the Alliance website there are some encouraging but apparently meaningless statements. According to the “Our Approach and Commitments” section on the “Responsibility” page, Phillips 66 is, “…committed to safety and we conduct our business with care for the environment and engagement with communities where we operate.” Then there’s this from the “Community Investments” section: “We invest in the preservation of our natural resources because we believe development and conservation can co-exist. We are particularly driven to support projects or policies that provide sustainable solutions connected to our business. Through our community investments, we will strive to promote water conservation, support improvement of the environment in the communities where our employees live and work, and advance reasonable policy solutions.” And this: “We invest in environmental programs that improve energy efficiency, preserve and enhance wildlife habitat, and promote environmental education.”
It all sounds great and promising. However, there is one really big problem: Reality. On Sunday September 2nd in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Isaac (then again on September 10th), we were able to fly again over the Alliance refinery and collect photo and video evidence of damages and/or leaks. A special thank you is in order for Southwings and pilots Lance Rydberg and Skipper Tornsmeire for making flights available before and after Hurricane Isaac. Also, thanks to Josephine Billups and Southern Seaplanes for the September 2nd flight.
It is clear that the Phillips 66 company and its Alliance refinery were unprepared for even a Category 1 hurricane. You can see from the photos that the containment system failed and that oil and likely other hazardous and/or toxic materials leaked out of the facility and into the surrounding environment. While I filed a report with the National Response Center on September 3rd, I have not yet been contacted by any federal or state agencies that have jurisdiction and are charged with responding. So, to this date we do not know exactly what all leaked and what amounts. The Incident Report # is 1023154.
• Storms are the largest cause of refinery accident pollution in Louisiana.
• Storm accidents are often preventable.
• Refinery accidents during hurricanes put workers, communities and the environment at high risk.
• Accidents that occurred during hurricanes released significantly more pollution than other weather-related accidents
• Refineries must take action now to reduce accidents during storms.
• Planned shut downs minimize risk to workers and residents as well as limit emissions.
• Power failure is inevitable during storms.
• Refineries must increase capability to handle rainfall.
GRN will update you on any new developments as they become available. We are actively following up on the numerous NRC reports we filed in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac and any subsequent responses or lack-there-of by those federal and state agencies charged with conducting investigations. Also be on the lookout for more reports and before and after photos from other facilities that were not prepared for Hurricane Isaac, the damage we documented, and any relevant updates.
We are now over month out from Hurricane Isaac’s landfall in Southeast Louisiana. Many of the communities hardest hit have a long road to recovery. It is during trying times like these that we urge you to reach deep to provide much needed support for our coastal communities. If you’ve already been thinking about getting involved by volunteering or donating, here are some great organizations that could use your help.
Jonathan Henderson is the Coastal Resiliency Organizer for GRN.