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Ike's environmental toll apparent

Workers assess a diesel spill site on Goat Island, Texas, Sept. 25. Teams are working to identify and address pollution sites in Houston-Galveston and Port Arthur, Texas, since Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas coast on Sept. 13.

Associated Press

Workers assess a diesel spill site on Goat Island, Texas, Sept. 25. Teams are working to identify and address pollution sites in Houston-Galveston and Port Arthur, Texas, since Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas coast on Sept. 13.

WASHINGTON — Hurricane Ike's winds and massive waves destroyed oil platforms, tossed storage tanks and punctured pipelines. The environmental damage only now is becoming apparent: At least a half million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and the marshes, bayous and bays of Louisiana and Texas, according to an analysis of federal data.

In the days before and after the deadly storm, companies and residents reported at least 448 releases of oil, gasoline and dozens of other substances into the air and water and onto the ground in Louisiana and Texas. The hardest-hit places were industrial centers near Houston and Port Arthur, Texas, as well as oil production facilities off Louisiana's coast.

"We are dealing with a multitude of different types of pollution here … everything from diesel in the water to gasoline to things like household chemicals," said Larry Chambers, a petty officer with the U.S. Coast Guard Command Center in Pasadena, Texas.

No major spills

The Coast Guard, with the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies, has responded to more than 3,000 pollution reports associated with the storm and its surge along the upper Texas coast. Most callers complain about abandoned propane tanks, paint cans and other hazardous materials containers turning up in marshes, back yards and other places.

No major oil spills or hazardous materials releases have been identified, but nearly 1,500 sites still need to be cleaned up.

The Coast Guard's National Response Center in Washington collects information on oil spills and chemical and biological releases and passes it to agencies working on the ground. Reports received by the center from Sept. 11 through Sept. 18 for Louisiana and Texas provide an early snapshot of Ike's environmental toll.

With the storm approaching, refineries and chemical plants shut down as a precaution, burning off hundreds of thousands of pounds of organic compounds and toxic chemicals. In other cases, power failures sent chemicals such as ammonia directly into the atmosphere.

Such accidental releases probably will not result in penalties by regulators because the releases are being blamed on the storm.

By far, the most common contaminant left in Ike's wake was crude oil — the lifeblood and main industry of both Texas and Louisiana. In the week of reports analyzed, nearly enough crude oil was spilled to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and more could be released, officials said, as platforms and pipelines are turned back on.

The Minerals Management Service, which oversees oil production in federal waters offshore, said the storm destroyed at least 52 of roughly 3,800 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty-two more were severely damaged. But there was only one confirmed report of an oil spill — a leak of 8,400 gallons that officials said left no trace because it dissipated with the winds and currents.

Air contaminants were the second-most common release, mostly from the chemical plants and refineries along the coast.

About half of the crude oil was reported spilled at a facility operated by St. Mary Land and Exploration Co. on Goat Island, Texas, a spit of uninhabited land north of the heavily damaged Bolivar Peninsula. The surge from the storm flooded the plant, leveling its dirt containment wall and snapping off the pipes connecting its eight storage tanks, which held the oil and water produced from two wells in Galveston Bay.

By the time the company reached the wreckage by boat more than 24 hours after Ike's landfall, the tanks were empty. Only a spattering of the roughly 266,000 gallons of oil spilled was left, and that is already cleaned up, according to Greg Leyendecker, the company's regional manager. The rest vanished, likely into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ike's fury might have helped prevent worse environmental damage. Its rough water, heavy rains and wind helped disperse pollution.

Monitors zapped, too

Air quality tests by Texas environmental regulators found no problems even in communities near industrial complexes, where power outages and high winds in some cases knocked out emergency devices that safely burn off chemicals. But Ike also zapped many of the state's permanent air pollution monitors in the region.

"We came out of this a lot better than we could have been, especially thinking where the storm hit," said Kelly Cook, the homeland security coordinator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Katrina ranked among the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, with about 9-million gallons of oil spilled. Ike's storm surge was less severe than feared — 12 feet rather than 20-feet-plus — and the dikes, levees and bulkheads built around the region's heavy industry mostly held.

Much of that infrastructure is protected by a 1960s-era Army Corps of Engineers system of 15-foot levees similar to the one around New Orleans that failed catastrophically during Katrina.

Ike's environmental toll apparent 10/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 2:54pm]
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