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Natural Disaster Impacts Chemical Enterprise

Industry remains hard hit and many academic institutions remain out of contact, with unknown losses of people and facilities

by Cheryl Hogue, Marc S. Reisch, William G. Schulz, And Elizabeth K. Wilson
September 2, 2005

Katrina swept over numerous facilities.
Katrina swept over numerous facilities.

As the Labor Day holiday weekend approached, the Gulf Coast region—an important hub of the U.S. chemical enterprise—continued to reel from the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The petroleum, natural gas, and petrochemical industries along the Gulf Coast remain hindered or closed. Academic colleagues from several colleges and universities remain out of telephone or e-mail contact, their whereabouts largely unknown. And the devastation to research laboratories and other facilities along with the potential for lasting environmental damage remain unknown but of acute concern.

President George W. Bush, who visited the affected area in person on Sept. 2, has appointed a Cabinet-level, multiagency task force, chaired by Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, to help deal with the disaster. Among the many federal employees being deployed to the area are teams dispatched by the Environmental Protection Agency to assess damage to drinking water and sewage treatment plants as well as to industrial facilities. EPA says the main focus of its response team in New Orleans so far has been rescue of stranded survivors.

EPA’s airborne spectral photometric environmental collection technology (ASPECT) plane is flying over chemical and oil facilities in flooded areas from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Thus far, the agency reports it has found no major structural damage to those facilities and no major spills.

The ASPECT aircraft found a pipeline near Burris, La., leaking crude oil into a marsh, the agency reports. EPA says the Coast Guard is responding to that leak.

According to a Sept. 2 Associated Press report, an explosion in New Orleans followed by a series of smaller blasts and black smoke came from a chemical storage facility near the Mississippi River.

As fuel supplies tightened because of hurricane-damaged refineries and oil pipelines, EPA temporarily lifted clean fuel standards nationwide. The action allows the sales of higher volatility gasoline and the use of diesel fuel with sulfur content greater than 500 ppm. “These waivers are necessary to ensure that fuel is available throughout the country to address public health issues and emergency-vehicle supply needs,” EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson says.

The storm forced the majority of chemical plants in southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama to close for safety reasons, analyst Frank Mitsch, of research firm Fulcrum Global Partners, told clients in a report. The storm has idled about 20% of total North American ethylene capacity while over 10% of North American chlor-alkali capacity was shut down, according to Mitsch.

Petrochemical industry consultant CMAI reported widespread outages at ethylene, propylene, benzene, and phenol units. On the positive side, CMAI said some crude oil and product pipelines have resumed limited service, all vinyls facilities on the Gulf Coast have restarted, and chlor-alkali units have either restarted or are in the process of restarting. “Lost vinyl production is estimated at three to four days; however, ongoing operations are subject to energy and raw material supply and transportation availability,” CMAI added.

Attempts by C&EN to reach numerous chemistry professors, including ACS local section officers, at Tulane University, New Orleans; Southern University of New Orleans; Loyola University in New Orleans; and the University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, have mostly failed. Telephones had busy signals and e-mail messages were bounced back to the sender.

But C&EN did make e-mail contact with Tulane surface scientist Ulrike Diebold, who was able to leave New Orleans before the storm hit. She writes: “I was unable to contact the members of my research group. So far, I have only had e-mail contact with one postdoc and a student who evacuated together. Attempts to contact others have failed because phones are down, and because we all use the Tulane webserver, which is down as well. I am particularly worried about one student who, I am afraid, may have tried to ride out the hurricane.”

Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, chemistry professor George G. Stanley tells C&EN: “There are many evacuees from the New Orleans area staying with their LSU-attending children in dorm rooms and apartments.” He says all colleges and universities in New Orleans have canceled their fall semesters, and he notes that “LSU is the center for some of the disaster-relief efforts. Our basketball arena and field house are currently serving as emergency triage medical centers.”

The American Chemical Society Council unanimously approved a resolution on Aug. 31 expressing “sincere and heartfelt concern” over the death and destruction wrought by the hurricane. James D. Burke, chair of the ACS Board of Directors, urges ACS members to give generously to relief organizations and says that the society will be assessing the needs of local sections in the disaster area and will work with them in their recovery efforts.

A statement from American Chemistry Council President Jack N. Gerard notes that ACC member companies and employees “have opened their hearts and homes to the victims of Katrina and are contributing millions of dollars to relief efforts. The number-one priority of our companies is caring for the safety and well-being of employees impacted by Katrina.”

ACC also says its member companies in the region “have assessed or are assessing” the environmental impact of the storm. “Based on available information, it appears the integrity of our companies’ production facilities has been maintained.” The organization also notes that the disaster will heavily impact natural gas prices and availability, upon which it depends for operations.

Some chemical firms in the storm area weathered the past few days in good shape while others did not. CF Industries said it had resumed production and shipments of ammonia, urea, and other fertilizer material from its plant outside of Baton Rouge after restarting most operations on Sept. 2. The company said it was receiving “adequate natural gas supplies;” employees were back at work; and pipeline, rail, barge, and truck shipments were resuming.

On the other hand, companies such as water treatment firm Nalco said it had sustained no major damage and that plants in Scott and Port Allen, La., had resumed operations and that power had been restored to its largest facility in Garyville, La. But Nalco also said it faced restrictions because of limited raw material and distribution channels and because many employees could not get back to work yet.

Air Products & Chemicals reported extensive damage to its hydrogen production facilities in New Orleans. “Right now, Air Products’ primary focus is on the safety and welfare of its employees in the area,” the firm said.

Responding to the regional distress, a number of firms announced aid contributions to help the residents of the area rebuild their lives. Dow Chemical pledged $3 million, of which $1 million in cash was going immediately to the American Red Cross. Another $1 million would be available to match employee donations to the Red Cross, and $1 million in products and technology donations would go to longer term reconstruction efforts.

In addition, DuPont pledged $1 million in cash to be followed with donations of products for disaster relief, recovery, and rebuilding. Koch Industries promised a total of $2.25 million, including $1 million in cash to the Red Cross, $1 million to match employee donations to the Red Cross, and $250,000 to the Salvation Army. Even W.R. Grace, now undergoing bankruptcy reorganization, pledged $100,000 to the Red Cross relief efforts.



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