Hurricane Harvey flood waters cause 1.7 million-litre petrol spill near Houston waterway

Hurricane Harvey flood waters cause 1.7 million-litre petrol spill near Houston waterway

Hurricane Harvey flood waters cause 1.7 million-litre petrol spill near Houston waterway

Updated 12 September 2017, 22:50 AEST

Floodwaters have triggered a spill of more than 10,000 barrels of petrol from two storage tanks along the Houston Ship Channel, marking the largest spill reported to date from Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey's floodwaters have triggered a spill of more than 1.5 million litres of petrol from two storage tanks along the Houston Ship Channel, marking the largest spill reported to date from a storm that slammed into the heart of Texas' huge petrochemical industry.

Key points:

  • At least 14 chemical tanks failed due to Harvey, releasing more than 2 million litres of fuel
  • Some of the spilled fuel flowed into a waterway adjacent to the heavily-industrialised Houston Ship Channel
  • Petrol is more likely than oil to catch fire and can more rapidly penetrate soil and potentially contaminate groundwater

The spill measured 10,988 barrels, or more than 1.7 million litres, and occurred at a petroleum tank farm in Galena Park, east of Houston, operated by Magellan Midstream Partners, according to the Oklahoma-based company and accident reports submitted to federal officials.

Some of the spilled fuel flowed into a waterway adjacent to the ship channel, a heavily-industrialised area lined with dozens of petrochemical facilities, the reports said.

Petrol is more volatile than oil, meaning it evaporates more quickly after it has spilled. But it is also more likely to catch fire and can more rapidly penetrate the soil and potentially contaminate groundwater supplies.

The spill came after twin blasts rocked a chemical plant north-east of Houston as floodwaters receded in the wake of the storm that left dozens dead last month.

Magellan spokesman Bruce Heine said the petrol that reached the small, unnamed waterway had been contained. The spilled fuel was sprayed with foam to prevent it from releasing harmful vapours, he said.

"Federal and state regulators have been on-site during the recovery and clean-up procedures.

"Clean-up activities at the facility are continuing and we are currently removing and replacing affected soil."

The US Environmental Protection Agency said in an emailed statement that it was not aware of any environmental damage from the spill outside of Magellan's Galena Park facility. The agency said there was a chance the petrol would enter the ship channel but agency personnel were not aware of that happening.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (CEQ) planned to investigate the accident to determine if Magellan had complied with its operating permit and state rules that require the company to disclose any air pollution emitted by the spilled petrol, CEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said.

Environmentalists criticised officials for not being proactive in publicising the spill and warning Houston-area residents that it had occurred.

Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said the group had received anecdotal reports of people in the Houston area suffering headaches, respiratory problems and other symptoms associated with exposure to chemicals in contaminated floodwaters.

"They ought to know exactly how much gasoline was spilled, where it is now, how the state is containing it, and whether they should worry about any ongoing public health threats," said Kara Cook-Schultz with the advocacy group TexPIRG.

The spill was first reported to state and federal officials on August 31, but no volume was given at that time. The company later that day reported the spill was 1,000 barrels.

In a report filed last week and released on Monday (local time), Magellan put the spill more than 10 times higher at 10,988 barrels: equivalent to the combined volume of about 51 tanker trucks used to deliver petrol to service stations.

Mr Heine said state and federal regulators had been notified promptly of the company's best assessments of the volume.

Harvey caused at least 14 tanks to fail

The Associated Press has identified more than two dozen spills from fuel and chemical tanks that failed during Harvey. At least 14 tanks failed when their roofs sank under the weight of Harvey's unprecedented rainfall. Others were swept away by floodwaters.

Including the Magellan spill, the accidents have released more than 2 million litres of fuel.

Mr Heine said what happened with Magellan's tanks was "related to flooding associated with the hurricane," but would not elaborate and said the cause was still under investigation.

Government regulations do not require tank owners to take specific steps to make the tanks flood resistant, although researchers have warned for years they are prone to break open during severe hurricanes. In 2005 during Hurricane Katrina storage tank failures spilled millions of gallons of fuel into floodwaters.

AP