Published: 01 October, 2005
Industry must still brace itself for the two months remaining of the 2005 Hurricane Season - but it has already been one of the most memorable and costliest years in living memory.
Seventeen named storms and nine major hurricanes have hit the Caribbean and the Southern US. Certainly, two names on the hurricane list - Katrina and Rita - have made deep impact on the whole world.
On September 23rd, 2005, The Deepwater Nautilus, an ultra-deep water state of the art semi-submersible drilling rig was left drifting helplessly after the storm conditions of Hurricane Rita broke its towline. Just before entering the Gulf of Mexico the rig was being repaired at West Cameron Block 121, about 30 miles from Cameron, Louisiana. The rig’s mooring system had been extensively damaged during the previous hurricane Katrina.
On its way to a ‘safe haven’ the rig-towing bridle of the Nautilus broke in Rita’s heavy waters and strong winds. Only at the last moment on that Friday afternoon could the final 14 of the 45-strong crew be evacuated. This is only one example of the effects of these major hurricanes on the oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico in the last months.
Richard Krauss, a senior fire and safety consultant for the American Petroleum Institute, made some specific points about safety procedures in high-risk installations before, during and after a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico to IFJ’s Ann-Marie Knegt. Krauss believes that the effects of these hurricanes will speed up development towards changes in future emergency planning.
“The extensive damage to the civil infrastructure in the area in and east of New Orleans was extremely unusual and unexpected - unlike previous hurricanes. I am sure this will be considered in future emergency planning. I also believe that there will be action by the model building codes (which govern new and rebuilt construction in most US jurisdictions) to strengthen building code requirements in hurricane-prone areas of the country. There has been ongoing activity for stricter codes and this hurricane will probably be all that is needed.
“Petrochemical companies have typically developed emergency plans for natural and other disasters. Hurricanes are a regular occurrence in the Gulf region,” Krauss explains.
In July 2005 the industry gathered at the American Petroleum Institute conference in Houston in July to discuss how to improve the Gulf’s infrastructure and to talk about revising the so-called 100-year storm criteria. An installation needs to be built to resist a once in a century storm but then Katrina and Rita struck.
Krauss explains that there are standard protective measures followed by the petrochemical industry at the moment consist of several procedures. A key preventive measure is filling storage tanks with product and/or water to prevent flotation in event of flooding. In addition, time permitting, lines and some processes susceptible to damage may be drained and/or flushed or filled with water.
“Normally, there will be emergency shut down and the securing of process units to prevent fires, releases and other damage during and after the storm. Preventive measures will be taken to control, contain or minimise waste treatment (separator) overflow,” he continues.
After all these precautions have been made all the non-essential workers will be evacuated. Only the designated response personnel will remain in the refinery or on the offshore installation for damage for damage evaluation, cleanup and return to service. They will also activate the emergency response plan and emergency control centre.
“These people will sit out the hurricane and will prepare the installation for start-up. This will involve extensive cleaning and drying of electrical wiring, equipment, switches and motors. A check-up will assure proper function before entering the start-up process” says Krauss.
Furthermore, responsible personnel will carry out an evaluation to determine if any spill, leakage or release of toxic chemicals has occurred - thus, the resultant exposure to response personnel would be minimised and controlled.
Specially-appointed emergency response teams will clean up any damage to the environment, like the removal, treatment and disposal of oil-contaminated floodwater and other residues from dikes and process blocks.
Krauss also adds that controlled drying has to take place before a full start-up of furnaces and heaters to prevent any failure of water-soaked linings.
He stresses that continued co-operation with local law enforcement officers and emergency responders is essential to assure facility protection during the evacuation and start-up of the installation.
Krauss comments:”As you may know, communication by cellphone was disrupted for some days following the storm Katrina. This has identified a need for an alternate means of emergency communication such as satellite phones or radio.”
“In addition, the extensive loss of private (employee) housing has also identified a need to feed and house employees - within facilities or near to facilities as transportation, access roads etc. are very limited. Many companies (other than petrochemical) have made similar arrangements during the past weeks in order to provide services for employees so that they can return to business as soon as possible.
“Another measure that was taken was that pumps were brought online and mainline pipelines were brought back into service (although at reduced rates of flow) shortly after the storm. In addition, the New Orleans oil port has been receiving deliveries,” Krauss concludes.