The Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has awarded Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) with a three-year Healthy Ecosystems grant to examine and address the vulnerability of petrochemical facilities along Galveston Bay to flood-induced chemical spills and releases. In a robust partnership with the Galveston Bay Foundation and Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, College of Engineering, School of Public Health and College of Architecture, EDF will conduct modeling and analysis to identify which facilities are most at risk and what solutions, such as natural infrastructure, might reduce those risks and lessen impacts to nearby communities and ecosystems. This unique collaboration leverages expertise across multiple disciplines that will inform strategies for other vulnerable coastal areas with heavy industrial footprints, such as in neighboring Louisiana.
The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season has provided a stark reminder of how vulnerable petrochemical facilities are to the effects of storm surge and excessive rainfall. The Environmental Protection Agency received 31 reports of oil and chemical spills in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura. In the last 15 years, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Harvey also caused large-scale spills and releases of chemicals that had widespread health and environmental impacts.
“In order to make informed decisions that ensure the U.S. Gulf Coast region remains resilient — and habitable — for future generations, we need to understand much better the connections between natural processes and human activities in the region,” said Laura Windecker, program officer for the GRP. “This grant opportunity encourages research that is actionable to help conserve our valuable ecosystems, while also protecting people’s health and livelihood.”
Toxic releases and chemical spills are man-made disasters that compound the damages of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, and often exacerbate existing inequalities and systemic racism. Low-income, underserved communities along the Gulf Coast are at greatest risk from releases of chemical contaminants. These releases can also result in closure of fishing grounds, with devastating effects to commercial fishing fleets and related jobs.
“Galveston Bay, like the wider Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana, is vulnerable to episodic storms, heavy rainfall, flooding and sea level rise,” said Capt. Greg Ball, President, Galveston Professional Boatmen’s Association. “Flooding-related damage from hurricanes including Katrina and Harvey has triggered releases of petroleum products and chemical contaminants, affecting the air, waterways and surrounding neighborhoods. The proposed project will fill critical gaps in our understanding about the health risk to people and ecosystems due to toxics that may be released as a result of weather- and climate-related events.”