Earthquake Hazards: Release of Hazardous Materials

 Just as an earthquake can damage or destroy buildings, cause liquefaction, landslides, seiches, fires, flooding, dam failures, and tsunami, the shaking can cause the release of hazardous materials. This release can happen as hazardous material storage tanks or containers are damaged.

And don't be complacent and think only facilities that manufacture hazardous materials are at risk.  

Many manufacturing and other facilities use various hazardous materials throughout their processes, and a tremor could cause the release of these materials through damaged or destroyed distribution or storage systems. 

One consideration, which you have no real control over, is the transportation of hazardous materials. While uncommon, accidents involving vehicles with hazardous materials--which include trucks and railcars--do happen. In these accidents, depending on the hazardous material(s), whole blocks, neighborhoods, or even sections of a city may be put on lockdown or evacuated.

The potential list and description of hazardous materials, and their associated health and environmental hazards, would easily be their own set of books, so I won’t even try to enumerate them. However, these materials include flammable liquids, solids, and gases as well as explosive material, corrosive materials, and toxic substances. Some substances are reactive to water and can create toxic or corrosive gases. Hazardous materials even include infectious substances and radioactive materials. 

Here is a small list of possible failures that could lead to the release of hazardous materials:

structural and storage container failures,

open-topped containers sloshing material,

falling containers or shelves,

tanks falling or overturning, and

pipeline breaks in both under- and above-ground lines.

Damage can happen at industrial sites releasing material from ruptured containers of pipes. Smaller storage vessels, like drums, barrels, and sacks can be damaged by falling or having something fall on them.

Fires in the area of the hazardous material could release toxic or combustible products into the air.

Now imagine in an earthquake scenario. 

Roads and bridges are damaged, many unusable, from the quake. Communication is likely spotty at best, so emergency notifications may or may not get issued or even be received. Not only does this scenario make it harder to notify residents of the hazardous materials release, but clean up becomes exceptionally challenging. 

Collapsed Santa Monica Freeway, after 1994 Northridge quake. FEMA photo.

The likelihood of being unintentionally exposed to the hazardous materials increases the less aware you are of what is around you. Most people will have their mind on immediate concerns for themselves and their family. Concerns like shelter, maybe warmth (if the quake happens in the cold season), food, safe water, and safety from personal threats will be of greater concern for most people, and they're unlikely to be aware of potential hazardous materials release.

Consider how frequently hazardous materials are transported on our roads and railways. I'm not in the hazardous materials transportation industry, but what I've been told is there are more hazardous materials being transported than most people are aware of. Most of the time, we don’t know what is on the roads or railways unless there is an accident. 

What happens when one of these tankers is damaged? 

Normally, depending on the hazardous substance, a small to very large area may need to be notified, and then locked down or evacuated. Cleanup can take many hours (sometimes days). 

In the event of an earthquake, damaged roads and railways can cause derailment, tipping, and even the collision of tankers transporting hazardous materials. The damaged roads and bridges will delay containment and cleanup and will increase the exposure risk. 

In addition to the transportation of hazardous material, how many industrial, commercial, and other facilities in the area use chemicals and hazardous materials in their day-to-day processes? Most of the time the use of these materials is done safely, with minimal to no threat. But, what if an unforeseen event (earthquake) causes the release of hazardous material?

In the aftermath of an earthquake, emergency response personnel will be overwhelmed. Unless there is an obvious loss of containment, it may be hours or days before the release of hazardous materials is discovered.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake was classified as a moderate earthquake, with a magnitude of 6.7. The news media focused on the structural collapses, and there were a few hazmat incidents reported by the national media. 

FEMA photo of damaged road from 1994 Northridge earthquake

However, a 1996 analysis, Hazardous Materials Releases in the Northridge Earthquake: Implications for Seismic Risk Assessment, completed by Michael K. Lindell and Ronald W. Perry states, “many more [hazmat incidents] were identified later and responded to by federal, state, and local agencies”. Their analysis reported the Los Angeles County Fire Department and Health Hazardous Materials Division identified 134 locations with hazmat problems and 60 emergency hazmat incidents. Of these incidents, 10 were classified as major.

From that analysis, the Santa Clarita command post found 52 commercial or industrial sites, of 598 assessments conducted, that had hazmat concerns. The Van Nuys command post conducted 1689 assessments and found 82 sites with hazmat concerns. The Van Nuys assessment also found that only two of the sites (both industrial facilities) that experienced hazardous materials release also sustained structural damage.

There were also petroleum pipeline leaks, although those spills were not as large as they could've been as the system was operating at low pressure at the time of the quake compared to its normal operating pressures.

Natural gas leaks were common and caused many fires. About three-fourths of the gas pipeline ruptures caused by the quake were likely because of corrosion-related issues in the pipe. Better maintenance of the pipes may have reduced the number of gas leaks, and resulting fire.

There were few railcar-related hazmat releases. And, if there's any good news, there weren't any reported earthquake-initiated-hazardous-materials release from trucks.

Kaiser Permanente building after 1994 Northridge earthquake. Photo by Gary B. Edstrom, released to public domain
Kaiser Permanente building after 1994 Northridge earthquake. Photo by Gary B. Edstrom, released to public domain


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