Disasters Leave a Toxic Tail
Following a natural
disaster, toxic materials
released by the storm
waters wreak havoc on
the environment and
By Gregory DL Morris
The year 2017 was a bad year for named storms. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused widespread property damage and loss of life. While refineries and chemical plants were secured, pollution and contamination from agricultural and pool chemicals as well as fuels and lubricants could be seen far and wide.
“Since the Murphy Oil release during Hurricane Katrina, heavy industrial
facilities at risk have developed stronger preparedness and storm contingency
plans,” said Marcel Ricciardelli, senior vice president of environmental, design,
professional and surety, Allied World.
“A single major release can result in extensive damage.”
While no Murphy Oil-scaled events occurred, 2017 saw tank roof collapses,
fires and explosions, air pollution releases, spills and waste site flooding. To add
historical context, Hurricane Sandy, which hit in 2013, resulted in similar types of
releases from flooded vehicles and underground/aboveground storage tanks.
“Major changes in building codes or government regulations would likely be
needed to harden small businesses, commercial buildings, homes and vehicles,”
said Ricciardelli. “The key question is whether the cost and effort would help to
reduce releases significantly.”
He added, “I believe that it has been most effective to plan for worst-case
scenarios, using preparation time to remove hazardous materials and to develop
contingencies for critical services. Unfortunately, there is a lack of predictability
with regard to weather intensity and flooding.”
PLANNING FOR CONTAMINANTS
Flooding is a broad peril with the ability to move pollution.
“Without the ability to prevent flooding, it is difficult to prevent possible
contamination from flood waters,” said Ricciardelli. “Flood water can be
contaminated from sewage overflows, waste sites, releases from mechanical
systems, energy infrastructure and materials in the chain of commerce.”
Given that reality, “property owners should understand that contingency plans
should be developed to include assistance from emergency response firms and the
possible use of environmental insurance as part of their risk management plan.
An environmental insurance policy may provide coverage for the clean-up of
pollution that migrates from off-site sources.”
Most substantial industrial facilities have management and emergency response
plans in place that are required.
“For facilities with aboveground tanks, storm surges and flooding are
significant concerns for tank failures,” said Eugene Wingert, environmental
manager, Chubb Risk Engineering Services. “Debris generated from a storm can
also damage tanks. A facility’s contingency plan should anticipate methods that
protect tanks from surges, flooding or floating debris.”
Unexpected conditions can lend themselves to toxic repercussions.
“For example, in the case of the Arkema plant, the fire and environmental
damages were the result of the loss of back-up generators,” Wingert noted. “The
loss of power impacted the ability to
cool the storage areas, and chemicals
within these areas reacted at the higher
Speaking broadly, he added,
“Conditions such as storm surge,
flooding, winds are all perils that
may exacerbate the release of toxic
chemicals into the atmosphere causing
third-party exposure, bodily injury,
water-supply infiltration, air exposure
Continued disaster preparation
becomes more important as climate
• While industrial owners are
better prepared for floods, many
smaller commercial locations still
• Continued disaster preparation
becomes more important as
climate change worsens.
• Gross contamination could lead
to a public health crisis depending
on toxicity levels.
“Without the ability to prevent
flooding, it is difficult to prevent
possible contamination from
— Marcel Ricciardelli, senior vice president of
environmental, design, professional and surety,
Flood waters enable toxic chemicals to release into the water system and evaporate into the air.