After Hurricanes, Toxic Spills and Pollutants Threaten Gulf Coast Communities

After Hurricane Laura barreled through southwest Louisiana in late August, independent environmental scientist and chemist Wilma Subra began testing for contaminants in local waterways. In this region crowded with oil and gas infrastructure, pollution appears to be widespread. Heading west from her home in New Iberia, Subra said there are “large, large areas of oily sheen floating on the water, and you see large areas of oily sheen in the vegetation in the marsh all around these oil and gas facilities.”

Subra has been searching for evidence of heavy metals — including arsenic, which can increase risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and several types of cancer, and lead, which can cause damage to the brain and nervous system — as well as bacteria from sewage spills. Her hope is to communicate potential health risks to the people returning home following the storm. Wading through contaminated water or sediment can bring on “respiratory problems and skin rashes,” Subra said. “But then it can lead to a lot more serious conditions.”

A patchwork of federal and state agencies, as well as private companies and their contractors, bear the responsibility of cleaning up these messes. But in Gulf Coast states, outdated infrastructure, incomplete reporting, and lax environmental regulations make the extent of spills and leaks from hurricanes difficult to assess. Subra, as well as environmental groups, have done testing for years to fill in gaps left by agencies that lack jurisdiction or a budget to test extensively.

Major storms often spur hazardous spills. Fifteen years ago, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil to pour into the Gulf of Mexico. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey set off dozens of toxic leaks in Houston’s floodwaters, many of which went unreported for days or weeks, if publicly documented at all. A 2018 report by the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, showed that aging or abandoned infrastructure such as offshore rigs, wells, and pipelines are particularly vulnerable to storm damage.

Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney at SELC, said that assessing the extent of damage is difficult because small-scale spills and leaks from facilities, drilling sites, or pipelines are often a chronic problem. “If we don’t even know the full extent of the impacts, then we don’t know how to address them,” she said.

In the days following Hurricane Laura, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that it received notice of 31 oil and chemical spills related to the storm. The reports are documented in a database maintained by the Coast Guard and reveal only basic information: the name of the company, location of the facility, and date and time of the incident. But there are no details about the type of substance released.

Monitoring the short and long-term effects of these incidents is also challenging. An emergency declaration issued by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality ahead of Laura extended pollution monitoring deadlines for companies, which were already less strict than Texas’. The state has thousands of orphaned oil wells without owners to hold accountable.

If a spill reported to the Coast Guard is identified as oil and it’s within three miles of Louisiana’s shoreline, it becomes the responsibility of the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, said Sam Jones, coordinator of the agency. As of September 7, the office identified 65 “individual incidents of unauthorized discharges of oil” caused by Laura, according to an internal report. Jones said with help from owners, contractors, and partner agencies, “we’ve been able to contain them in the immediate containment zone.”

The agency is still getting calls about oily sheen over the water, Jones said, and they respond “as quickly as we can.”

In a press release on September 11, Louisiana environmental regulators wrote they would test water around Lake Charles due to reports of foul odors and poor water quality. However, the agency did not warn of any potential risks, instead claiming the smell could be coming from die-offs of fish and vegetation. It “cautioned observers against assuming any sheen or dark material on water is from oil.” An environmental scientist for the agency said in the release that the decaying material “releases substances that can look exactly like an oil sheen. But it’s not.”

Just three weeks after Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Sally made landfall near the border of Florida and Alabama. The storm damaged boats and barges near Pensacola, causing fuel and oil leaks in local waters. Ten days later, oil washed up on the beaches at Perdido Key. In an email, a spokesperson from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the department “is coordinating with the US Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife to identify pollution sources, and working with the responsible parties to initiate containment, removal, and cleanup.”

As the storm approached the Alabama coast, environmental group Mobile Baykeeper kept a close eye on a massive coal ash pond at Alabama Power’s Plant Barry, located just 20 miles upstream of Mobile Bay. Sally spared the pit, but heavy rain, flooding, and subsequent power outages caused 51 separate sewage spills in Mobile and Baldwin counties that the Baykeeper is currently tracking.

Sewage spills can be caused by heavy rain inundating aging infrastructure or by pump stations going offline during prolonged power outages. They’re not just a problem during hurricanes, however: In coastal Alabama, sewage spills are a longstanding issue and some municipalities have failed to adequately report them to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which is responsible for issuing permits and regulating stormwater runoff.

Exposure to viruses and bacteria in untreated sewage can cause health effects ranging from respiratory infections to gastrointestinal issues to paralysis, according to an EPA report.

“Sewage in our waterways carries pathogens,” said Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper. “It’s hazardous to your health and should be avoided at all costs.”

The problem stems from aging infrastructure, Callaway added. “We have to better prepare,” she said, “which includes things like properly closing the coal ash pond, significantly upgrading our sewage treatment facilities, burying power lines so that we’re not dealing with the danger and the risks of downed power all over both of our counties.”

Spills and leaks are going to keep happening unless major actions are taken to protect facilities and the communities living near them, said Weaver, from SELC. “We know hurricanes are getting stronger, we know they’re getting more frequent, we know these impacts have already caused significant problems in the Gulf,” she said. “The risks are only going to get worse as climate change and sea level rise make storms increase in frequency and in strength.”