Why natech disasters pose an increasing threat and what can be done about them

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

2020 wasn’t a good year for anyone—including nature. Wildfires spread across the western U.S., devastating millions of acres of forests. A record breaking number of hurricanes and cyclones hit the east coast during hurricane season. And we’ve hit a new high temperature record, causing climate-anxiety to skyrocket. Natural disasters across the country have cost at least$1 billion in initial damages.

And that number is just from the disaster itself—natural disasters have domino-like after-effects that can cause massive damage to homes, businesses, and personal health.

2020 and 2021 are behind us but natural disasters don’t look at calendars before striking. So while the new year brings with it a blank slate and renewed hope for the future, there’s one type of disaster we should be preparing to see more of: Natech disasters.

What Are Natech Disasters?

Think of Natech disasters as the second phase in a natural disaster. Natech (natural-hazard-triggered technological) disasters are a technological accident that has been triggered by a natural disaster. Fires, floods, earthquakes, lightning, and tsunamis are all types of natural disasters that can cause damage to technology.

Nashville Flood of 2010, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

These technology damages are less about blown down telephone poles or water-damaged computers, but about damage to areas storing dangerous chemicals, fossil fuels, and other toxic materials and byproducts. When buildings, pipelines, mines, waste sites, or other chemical storage sites are hit by a natural disaster, they can cause those chemicals to be released into the environment.

This can trigger a cascading disaster on the area surrounding the chemical breach—often contaminating the nearby water supply and soil, and causing potentially life-threatening damage to anyone nearby the chemical accident.

Natech Disasters Pose a Threat to Humans and the Environment

Natech disasters pose a threat to the safety of people not just near the facility when it gets hit by a natural disaster, but to environmental resources like nearby rivers and drinking supply. Dangers to potable drinking water can usually be detected without having to do any testing—black specks in water may indicate water heater corrosion, or a noticeable smell in water means a water filter needs to be replaced. But with Natech-related water contamination, those chemicals that have been released may not be noticed until someone (or a large group of people) become sick.

One recent Natech disaster occurred this past August after a dry lightning storm in California’s Santa Cruz mountains sparked a wildfire. After the wildfire had been contained, local officials warned residents to not use their home’s drinking water since Benzene, a carcinogen thought to have been released by the melted plastic pipes, had been detected. The chemical is very dangerous and the locals were directed to temporarily find other sources for drinking water.

Natech disasters also occured all along the eastern and gulf coast when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. Since the coast is littered with chemical plants, including about half of the U.S’s oil and gas refineries, these facilities essentially became ticking time bombs for a Natech-related issue. The hurricane caused chemical and petrochemical facilities to accidentally release millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the air. Anyone nearby was exposed and was in danger of serious harm to their respiratory systems. Chemical burns and other respiratory injuries often occur after being exposed to poisonous gas, asbestos, or other toxic fumes from affected chemical plants.

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash

Climate Change Leaves Tennessee In a Vulnerable State

One recent report from the Trust for America’s Health put Tennessee as one of the eight most-vulnerable and least-prepared states to deal with the risk of climate change and climate-related events. Tennessee’s top industries—automotive manufacturing and energy—create massive amounts of toxic byproducts that pose an extreme threat should an environmental disaster occur. And they already have.

The 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant accident was one of the most significant industrial accidents in U.S. history. After a 50-foot-high coal combustion waste containment pond at the plant failed, it released more than 5.4 million cubic yards of coal into the air and the Tennessee River. The spill also contaminated hundreds of other downstream communities across Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky. Toxic pollutants from this Natech disaster have been linked to cancer, birth defects, psychological stress, and other serious health concerns to those exposed.

Research on toxic exposure shows that the danger to humans doesn’t leave when the storm moves on. It can get worse. As the climate in Tennessee and across the world continues to change for the worse, Tennessee becomes even more at-risk of another Natech disaster like the TVA industrial accident. And while increased security measures have been put in place since these natural disasters, it may not be enough to hold back a worse storm should climate change continue to devastate the environment.

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