Waterfront oil storage facilities are vulnerable to extreme weather

November 5, 2014

In older American cities, including many on the East Coast, industrial development was typically centered on the waterfront, which has left a wide range of potential environmental liabilities in vulnerable areas. Spills can result in contamination that is highly toxic and difficult to clean up, as can unexpected floods. Given the costly nature of this problem, stakeholders are paying more attention to methods of mitigating the risk.

FEMA warns states of increasing risk with updated flood maps

The Boston Globe recently explored how this issue is affecting Massachusetts' low-lying coastal capital.

Antonio di Mambro, an architect and urban planner who advocates for adaptive infrastructure change in downtown Boston, told the Globe that there are dozens of large oil and gas containers sited next to Boston Harbor and along the Chelsea and Mystic rivers. 

During the past few years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been releasing updated flood risk maps that dramatically increase the number of residential, commercial and industrial properties in high-risk zones. Interested parties can review FEMA's flood map update schedule on the agency's website.

Coastal flooding, caused by storm surges or excess rainfall, can damage oil storage infrastructure and lead to spills. Awareness of storm surge risk has increased dramatically in the wake of recent disasters such as hurricanes Sandy, Katrina and Ike. Oil and gas facilities located near the coast must take flood risk into account when designing operating procedures and contingency plans.

Effective risk management requires examination of site-specific factors

Oil spills can be extremely costly for facility owners or operators, especially if the incident occurs as a result of noncompliance with the Environmental Protection Agency's Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) rule. Stakeholders have advanced a wide range of options for addressing the flood risk problem. Some have advocated a gradual withdrawal from vulnerable coastlines, with limited rebuilding after destructive storms. This strategy offers a definitive improvement in safety. However, there are significant economic incentives to maintain coastal development.

Joyce Klein Rosenthal, coordinator of Harvard university's Risk and Resilience program, told the Globe that it's important to look at sites with potential liabilities on a case-by-case basis. Individual facilities can face very different risks, even when they are close geographically. It is critical to identify and address all SPCC compliance issues and other risks at sites with significant oil storage capacity. Stakeholders may need to work with environmental consultants to ensure that they are addressing all potential liabilities.