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Risks in the Age of Extreme Weather Events: Chemical Releases, Exposures, and Human and Impact

By: Paul D. Boehm, Robert I. Haddad, Susan C. Paulsen, Ann Michelle Morrison, Adam Hatzikyriakou, James R. Bailey

Though the potential and actual impacts of extreme weather events (EWE) pose serious concerns for the public and private sectors, a systematic understanding of these threats is only now emerging. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted a retrospective of impacts by analyzing the frequencies and types of EWEs that have resulted in major financial costs, while the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) conducted a prospective analysis of causation or attribution of nine specific types of extreme events, both natural (climate related) and human influenced. Concurrent with these efforts, the scientific literature is being rapidly populated with highly relevant and useful analyses.

Table 1: Cumulative summary of number of billion-dollar EWEs (from NOAA 2018)

Collectively, this body of scientific scholarship (e.g., Table 1 and Figure 1, from NOAA 2018) creates a foundation for new insights into EWE-related risks, including potential impacts on property, resources, and vital infrastructure with resulting liabilities from chemical releases. These damages and releases have occurred recently in the Gulf Coast (e.g., Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Irma, and Harvey) and the Northeast (e.g., Hurricane Sandy) as well as inland waterways (e.g., Yellowstone River). Regions with concentrated industrial infrastructure or hazardous waste cleanup (Superfund) sites are especially vulnerable to the forces of EWEs and ensuing chemical releases.

Figure 1. Summaries of frequencies and economic impacts of “Billion-Dollar” extreme weather events (from NOAA 2018)

After Hurricane Katrina’s 20-foot storm surge severely damaged petroleum terminal and transmission facilities on the Gulf Coast and along the Mississippi River, infrastructure failures triggered releases of oil and hazardous chemicals, and multiple lawsuits and large settlements ensued (over $300 million for the Murphy oil cases alone).

Figure 2: Evaluation of estimated frequency of “100 year” floods (NOAA 2018)

Similar releases are expected in all areas threatened by future EWEs. In several unique, facility-specific lawsuits in Massachusetts plaintiffs were “concerned about, and hav[ing] an interest in eliminating the risk from, the toxic pollutants from the Everett Terminal that will wash into the Island End and Mystic Rivers, as well as into and nearby communities, when the Terminal is flooded by a severe storm and/or sea level rise.” Regardless of whether such lawsuits claiming implied impact will survive in the courts, the questions facing both the private and public sectors over risks of EWE-related chemical releases and consequences of those releases need to be understood—specifically:

  •  What can be predicted about future risks and future consequences of chemical releases?
  •  What is the extent of these threats and liabilities on facility, site-specific, and regional bases?

Companies have been analyzing infrastructure resiliency to varying extents for some time. However, most of this analysis has not included risks and consequences of chemical releases. To assess both the risks and consequences of EWEs, more granular approaches are needed to determine the risks of the triggering event—i.e., the risks of EWEs impacting regional infrastructure and specific facilities—and then determine the ensuing risks of chemical releases from damaged infrastructure. Assessing the consequences of such releases considers potential exposures and impacts, existing baseline conditions, the nature of the chemicals involved, and the area that could be affected to evaluate and monetize response/cleanup and legal action, including tort claims and natural resource damage claims.

Table 2. Risk matrix for determining risks and consequences of a chemical release from a facility as a result of Extreme Weather Events.

Both public entities and private companies need to conduct proactive analysis of regional and local risks and consequences, leading to the development of a matrix of anticipated frequency of events and the consequences of those events. Only then will companies and agencies be able to target and prioritize internal resources on specific “high likelihood/high negative consequence” events at specific facilities, in the context of uncertain future policy decisions.

Paul Boehm, Ph.D., is a principal scientist and corporate vice president in Exponent’s Environmental Group. Robert I. Haddad, Ph.D., is a principal scientist and group vice president of Exponent’s Environmental and Ecological Sciences Group in Menlo Park, CA. Susan C. Paulsen, Ph.D., P.E., is a pricipal scientist and practice director of Exponent’s Environmental & Earth Science Practice. Ann Michelle Morrison, Sc.D., is a senior managing scientist in Exponent’s Ecological & Biological Science Practice. Adam Hatzikyriakou, Ph.D., is an associate in Exponent’s Buildings & Structures Practice in New York, NY. James R. Bailey, Ph.D., is a senior managing engineer in Exponent’s Buildings & Structures Practice in Houston, TX.

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