Archive for the ‘Emergency Planning’ Category

FEMA Fiddles on Future Flooding

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

Remember when Congress did things? Just last year, it passed a bill requiring the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out how the National Flood Insurance program should handle rising seas brought about by global warming. Congress wasn’t going all touchy-feely about the environment. The provision was tucked into a 584 page transportation funding bill.

The first step required by the bill was for FEMA to establish an advisory panel, called the Technical Mapping Advisory Council which was to consult with scientists to help ensure that flood insurance rate maps incorporate the “best available climate science” to assess flood risk, and to ensure that FEMA uses the best available technology to consider the impact of rising sea levels. How’s that working out? According to an investigation by ProPublica,  the entire program has stalled before it got out of the gate. ProPublica tells us that, to date, FEMA hasn’t named a single member to the council.

This may sound like an obscure bit of bureaucratic delay in an agency that has had more than its fair share of bad press. But if any part of the federal government will be impacted by global warming and rising seas, it’s FEMA. The agency itself estimates that sea levels will rise an average of four feet in this century, increasing the portion of the country at risk of flooding by 45%. The National Flood Insurance Program is the country’s first line of financial defense, but it is currently $25 billion in debt after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Many of the maps FEMA and the insurance program rely on are decades out of date and were drawn up long before anyone thought of rising seas presenting a threat.

ProPublica quotes Jimi Grande, the senior vice president for federal and political affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies who says, “We need to know what the risks are to have an intelligent conversation as a country.”

ProPublica tried to have an intelligent conversation with FEMA’s press secretary. That conversation went nowhere because the agency was on furlough due to the government shutdown.

GAO Grapples With Climate Change’s Impact on Infrastructure

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

While the extractive industries and their political handmaidens continue to press the notion that climate change is nothing but a hoax, the actual scientific evidence that it is real continues to mount as inexorably as arctic ice melts and temperatures rise around the globe. Those greedy scientists who invented The Great Climate Change Hoax to get rich off grant money are now telling us that even the ice on Mount Everest which provides a water basin for more 1.5 billion people is melting.

As the “controversy” grinds on, the General Accounting Office and the National Research Council are not sitting idly by, waiting for the last skeptic to be won over. According to a newly released GAO report,  the U.S. already spends billions of dollars every year on infrastructure, but much of that infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, wastewater systems, even NASA centers are vulnerable to climate change. By way of example, the GAO points out that within 15 years segments of Louisiana State Highway 1—providing the only road access to a port servicing 18 percent of the nation’s oil supply – will be inundated by tides an average of 30 times annually due to sea level rise, effectively the port.

The report criticizes national and state decision makers for failing to systematically consider climate change in infrastructure planning. Replacing aging bridges and highways is an expensive and time-consuming task made no easier by piling climate change on top. But such planning is both essential and doable.  The GAO points by way of example to Milwaukee’s efforts to manage the risk of greatly increased rainfall by enhancing its natural systems’ abilities (including local wetlands) to absorb runoff.

The GAO report makes numerous recommendations, including the establishment of an executive agency to work with other state and federal agencies to identify and mitigate future disruptions and provided guidance on how agencies should address such disruption. Amidst all the hand-wringing and sleight-of-hand political distractions surrounding climate change, the report makes for refreshingly direct and level-headed reading. You can find the whole thing here.

Preparing for an Unwanted Guest


Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

Authorities and disaster-readiness companies urge families and individuals to have a plan, be prepared, and protect themselves in inclement weather. The arrival of Hurricane Isaac (now downgraded to Tropical Storm Isaac) on the Gulf Coast precipitated a flurry of evacuations, rescues, and news photographs.  But in the background, businesses and local governments are following their own plans.  

To allow for easier distribution within Louisiana’s fuel supply systems during the hurricane, the EPA granted an emergency waiver for clean gasoline requirements in the state at the request of Governor Jindal. Meanwhile, the BSEE reports that 85% of all oil platforms in the Gulf and 66% of all rigs were evacuated in preparation for Isaac. 

While waiting for the storm to move through, we can also consider the possible consequences of inadequate preparation. Today the EPA settled with Turner Construction Co. & Tompkins Builders regarding their violations of permits regulating the discharge of stormwater from their construction sites. Violations at 17 sites accured a total of $270,000 in civil penalties. Meanwhile, the BOEM’s Environmental Studies Program will conduct research on oil spills including modeling movement of surface spills and environmental impact. Underwater spills also pose a concern, however – speculation that oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon disaster could be spread onto beaches by Hurricane Isaac might add additional envirnomental considerations for business and local government alike.

Responding to Emergencies at Marcellus Shale Sites

Photo by Steve Partridge. Some rights reserved.

The Pennsylvania legislature recently passed a short but sweet bill (SB 995) requiring emergency response information to be posted at the entrance to each “unconventional” well site in the area.

In this case, “unconventional” is a roundabout way of saying “fracking”. Or, more technically, as explained by Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in a related alert last week:

The term “unconventional well” is defined to mean a natural gas well for production of gas from an unconventional formation. An “unconventional formation” is one below the base of the Elk Sandstone formation, or its equivalent, where natural gas cannot generally be produced economically except when the well bores are stimulated by hydraulic fracturing, use of multilateral well bores, or other techniques to expose more of the formation of the well bore.

The bill, which was signed by PA Governor Tom Corbett on February 2, requires such well sites to develop an emergency response plan, register the unique GPS coordinate address of the site with the Dept of Environmental Protection, and post a reflective sign at the entrance to each site with its address, emergency contact number and “other such information” deemed “necessary.”

Marcellus Connection quotes State Rep. Brandon Neuman as saying, “It’s very important for our local first responders to know where the drilling is going on […] a lot of the wells are in uncharted territory.”

Compliance During Inclement Weather

Photo courtesy of @gletham GIS, Social, Mobile Tech Images. Some rights reserved.

While tornadoes dominate headlines, the EPA is looking forward a few weeks to the onset of hurricane season. As if your personal safety weren’t enough to look out for, a recent EPA news release reminds us that extra precautions should be taken to minimize chemical releases associated with natural disasters.

This is not only a gentle suggestion but a federal requirement. Under the Clean Air Act’s Section 112(r)(1) – 42 U.S.C. 7412(r)(1) – owners and operators of facilities producing, processing, handling or storing hazardous substances have a “general duty” to take the steps necessary to prevent releases of such substances (you can see a list of the regulated substances at 40 C.F.R. 68.130). Such steps typically include a mix of general safety precautions and maintenance, monitoring, and employee training measures.

Let a little something slip? Any release that surpasses the “reportable quantity” for that substance mandates immediate notification of the National Response Center pursuant to Section 103 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (42 U.S.C. 9603). But just because you’ve notified the federal authorities doesn’t mean you can leave your neighbors in the dark – Section 304 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (42 U.S.C. 11004) requires owners and operators to alert state and local emergency response groups as well.

The relative predictability of hurricanes buys affected facility owners/operators a little bit of time – a rare opportunity not afforded to those in tornado zones. Of course, many of the precautions recommended are the same, it’s just that the schedule for implementation can be drastically different.

For more information, visit the EPA’s Natural Disaster and Weather Emergencies center.

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