HOUSTON — (March 26, 2014) — The 168,000 gallon oil spill currently affecting Galveston Bay is causing significant environmental damage, but its impacts are relatively small when compared with the environmental damage that could occur from a direct hit by a major hurricane, according to experts from Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center.
SSPEED Center Co-directors Phil Bedient and Jim Blackburn and researcher Jamie Padgett are available to discuss the challenges associated with the oil spill and the SSPEED Center’s efforts to prevent environmental damage when the next major hurricane hits.
SSPEED Center researchers have been evaluating the environmental impact that might occur from a reasonable worst-case hurricane event. Blackburn said if a storm surge of approximately 20 to 25 feet were to flood the Houston Ship Channel, most of the industrial facilities adjacent to the channel would be flooded to varying depths. As many as 1,400 storage tanks of various types would be inundated and many of the tanks could fail and release their contents into the surge waters that would flow back into Galveston Bay.
“To put the potential danger into perspective, a large crude-oil storage tank can hold as much as 250,000 barrels of oil,” said Bedient, the Herman Brown Professor of Engineering. “During Hurricane Katrina, a 250,000-barrel tank holding about 65,000 barrels of crude was flooded and lifted off its foundation, releasing over 25,000 barrels of crude oil. Twenty-five thousand barrels represents about 1.3 million gallons of crude oil released, and that was from one tank. Consider the impact of two or 10 or 100 tanks failing and sending their contents into Galveston Bay during a hurricane. That is a very real risk that all of us in the Galveston Bay region face every hurricane season.”
Padgett, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice, said, “Provisions are lacking to support design and risk assessment of tanks inundated by surge waters. Tanks can be lifted from their foundations. They can be buckled from the external pressure. Either way, these tanks are susceptible to flood damage and failure as illustrated in past storm events. Better models are needed to evaluate their vulnerability and the effectiveness of alternative design or risk-management strategies. Ongoing research in the SSPEED Center can do just that.”
“We at the SSPEED Center have proposed building a gate and levee system at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel to keep an unprecedented environmental disaster from occurring,” said Blackburn, a professor in the practice of environmental law. “The impact from the current spill at Texas City is unacceptable to all of us concerned about Galveston Bay. Imagine a hundred or a thousand times more oil and hazardous substances spread across the bay by the surge waters pouring back from the ship channel. This is why we are recommending that a gate be built as soon as practicable at the mouth of the channel. Such a solution can be built with local funds and relatively quickly. We are very concerned about every hurricane season that comes without adequate protection of the ship channel.”
The SSPEED Center recently received a three-year, $3.1 million grant from Houston Endowment to continue its work on developing hurricane defenses for the Galveston Bay region.
“We hope to develop a comprehensive plan that will not only protect the Houston Ship Channel but also provide additional protection to homeowners and businesses on the west side of Galveston Bay and Galveston Island,” Bedient said. “However, it is important to recognize that no one will want to live next to Galveston Bay if this worst-case spill occurs.”
“What we are seeing with this current spill at Texas City is proof of how damaging these can be,” Blackburn said. “The SSPEED Center is committed to preventing a much worse disaster from occurring when – not if – we are hit by a big hurricane.”
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