Hurricane Harvey crippled the Gulf Coast Aug. 25, 2017, when it made landfall three times in six days. Its aftermath substantially affected the petrochemical industry, forcing operators to evaluate their preparedness and in-place policies for a natural disaster. From storage tank failures to pipeline leaks, the industry’s safety culture and commitment as a good corporate citizen proved natural disaster preparedness starts with personnel and ends with first responders, stated Jerry MacCleary, chairman and CEO, Covestro LLC.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Texas Chemical Council (TCC) hosted a forum recently to discuss industry performance before, during and after Hurricane Harvey. The event allowed CEOs to share lessons learned and contribute to ongoing policy discussions about how best to prepare for future weather events.
“The difference of Hurricane Harvey compared to other hurricanes was the duration,” stated Jim Fitterling, president and COO, The Dow Chemical Company. “In most cases, when you prepare for a hurricane, it hits and within a couple of days, recovery begins. With Harvey, we had about five to seven days of events and then another week assessing the damage before recovery began. We tested the limits of everything: infrastructure, supplies and food.”
Considered the costliest hurricane on record, Hurricane Harvey caused an estimated $190 billion in damages, mainly due to catastrophic flooding in the Greater Houston area. Texas, the largest chemical-producing state in the U.S. and the top producer of ethylene, contributes nearly 75 percent of the U.S. supply. Its production shortage greatly affected the U.S. when Hurricane Harvey hit. Disrupting more than one-third of U.S. chemical production, many plants did not reopen until weeks after the storm. Shortages of petrochemicals persisted through the end of the year, driving up prices. With more than 35 inches of rain hitting Houston, many operators’ emergency plans, activated in coordination with local, state and national authorities, were put to the test.
“We were more worried about the water,” Fitterling stated. “The response is different in terms of whether you shut down or don’t. We never expected the magnitude of water.”
The question of whether or not to shut down is a time when the chemical industry comes together as one to make good decisions. As for safety and the greatest risks, MacCleary gave the analogy of an airplane taking off and landing.
“The greatest risk to our personnel and the surrounding communities is when a plant is shut down or restarted. Our preference is to run through it if it’s done safely,” he said.
Refineries and chemical plants reported more than 2,700 tons of air pollution due to direct damage from the hurricane and unplanned shutdowns, according to The New York Times. From Aug. 23-30, 46 facilities in 13 Texas counties reported airborne emissions that included benzene, toluene, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, which greatly exceeded state limits.
While the public would like to criticize operators for not shutting down facilities, commented ACC President and CEO Cal Dooley, there is a lack of understanding about the protocol of shutting down.
“When you make a decision to shut down your site or restart it, it’s a great deal of thought behind this,” stated Bob Patel, CEO and chairman of LyondellBasell. “It’s not about revenue when this decision is being discussed; it’s about safety. When you shut down and restart a plant, emissions and releases are a huge concern. So, how do you manage that?”
Restarting a petrochemical plant requires establishing stable flows, levels, temperatures and pressures within large equipment, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Inspection Board. At times, damage to equipment cannot be detected until a plant is restarted.
“Again, there is judgment in that, but ultimately we left it for the experts to decide because there are a lot of considerations to decide before a decision is made,” said Patel.
While many operators implemented their emergency plans in preparation for Hurricane Harvey, the aftermath proved revisions and modifications based on lessons learned need to be made.
“We need to improve our plan — plan for longer durations, supplies and excessive amounts of water — and start the planning process even earlier,” said Fitterling. “Our hurricane preparedness for the following year starts immediately after hurricane season ends, but now we may have to push that timeline even more.”
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