Tornadoes Leave Contamination in Their Wake

Once again, unfortunately,we are left to digest and process the details of another horrible tragedy. The Oklahoma tornado last Monday is already being referred to as “one of the most destructive storms ever recorded.” According to this visual analysis of aerial photos of the storm’s path by The New York Times, there were at least 4,000 buildings in the footprint of the tornado and at least 1,500 buildings destroyed or severely damaged.

And just the other day, NPR posted this map showing just-released satellite imagery of the damage, allowing you to zoom in to see the extent of the damage in a particular area.

After other massive natural disasters like the flooding that accompanied Hurricane Sandy in this neck of the woods last fall or hurricanes like Irene, Katrina and Ike, experts warned of environmental hazards that were not visible in the horrific images. The Oklahoma tornado is no exception. Experts are already warning of the potential environmental risks associated with this mile-wide tornado, including: groundwater contamination caused by damaged containers storing fuels, chemicals and other types of hazardous waste; airborne asbestos and lead in the debris of buildings that were damaged or leveled; disturbed industrial and medical waste; and oils pilled from downed electrical transformers (some of which may contain PCBs);among others. After the devastating 2011 Joplin, MO tornado, commonground member Katy Thibault posted a CNHI News Service article that cited the “toxic mess” left in its wake. Eventually, an astonishing 2,600 tons of asbestos were collected in the debris, and even more dangerous than the high levels of asbestos exposure was the land contamination caused by lead and cadmium.

There are believed to be nearly 80 million homes in the U.S. that were built before the lead paint ban in 1978, and 35 million homes, schools and businesses that still contain asbestos-contaminated insulation. Many of the neighborhoods devastated by last week’s Oklahoma tornado were built in the area’s fast-growth period of the 1960s and 1970s so asbestos and lead could be real concerns. Fortunately, it does not appear that any refineries or other industrial plants were damaged.

It is not uncommon for EDR to conduct analyses to assess the potential environmental impact of major storms. A few days before Hurricane Ike was expected to make landfall near Galveston, TX, my colleague Richard White, EDR Senior Software Engineer, R&D, GIS was asked to create a map showing the projected hurricane track and any environmental records that EDR had in its various databases:

“This was the first significant test of some plans and practices that the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) team at EDR had been putting into place following a similar request for Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There are three main sources of data for this type of map: EDR environmental records, hurricane track or forecast track, and a base map of roads, rivers and lakes, and political boundaries. Gathering the environmental records for these projects is straightforward. Internally,we identify the types of data that we want (e.g. storage sites, transfer sites,federal and state only, no spills) and the geographic region and send the request to our database people.”

I reached out to Richard last week, and a quick review of EDR’s environmental database for the area around Moore, OK reveals that there were 119 federal and state environmental records for properties in the areas that sustained EF-0 or higher damage (i.e., a measure of a tornado’s strength based on the damage caused). Approximately 28 of these records are for a known facility or storage tank: three RCRA Small Quantity Generators, six gas stations and three dry cleaners from our proprietary data sets; in addition to another 15 storage tanks. Thirteen of these records were located in areas that sustained EF-2 or higher damage.

And now, unfortunately it is critical for officials at the U.S. EPA and other regulatory agencies to go through the area shown on the maps above to identify the locations of all properties with chemicals of concern to assess the human health impact of the Oklahoma tornado.

EDR extends its sympathy to any of you who were directly or indirectly affected by this tragic storm.