Hundreds of Toxic Superfund Sites Imperiled by Sea-Level Rise, Study Warns

The Union of Concerned Scientists, faulting Trump for ignoring climate change, says flooding there could wash deadly chemicals into nearby communities.

Jul 28, 2020
Floodwaters inundate the San Jacinto River basin in Houston, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey. Credit: DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

Floodwaters inundate the San Jacinto River basin in Houston, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey. Credit: DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

A new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists concludes that more than 800 hazardous Superfund sites near the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are at risk of flooding in the next 20 years, even with low rates of sea level rise.  

More than 1,000 of the sites, overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, will be at risk for flooding by 2100 if carbon emissions continue on their current trajectory, triggering high rates of sea level rise, according to the study, which faults the Trump administration for ignoring climate change. 

Superfund sites, the toxic legacy of industry's environmental indifference, are the worst of the worst hazardous waste sites that expose millions of people—many in neighborhoods of color and of lower economic status—to hundreds of deadly chemicals. Flooding can increase the chances that these toxins will contaminate nearby land and water, putting communities at risk of adverse health effects.

The study, "A Toxic Relationship: Extreme Coastal Flooding and Superfund Sites," was written by Jacob Carter, a research scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists who began the analysis while working at the EPA. He was forced out of the agency in 2017 when the Trump administration signaled it would no longer prioritize climate change-focused research.

Trump Revoked Obama's Climate Change Directive in 2017

Carter started his review in response to a 2015 directive by President Barack Obama aimed at understanding how climate change was exacerbating flooding risks. The Trump Administration revoked the directive in 2017. Carter said that's when he was essentially shown the door.

"If I'd been able to carry out this work at the EPA, it would have allowed Superfund site project managers to prepare for the potential flooding to come," Carter said. "Instead, the new administration's EPA leadership came in with the clear intention to stop considering climate change, and it became clear to me that my work—which obviously focused on climate change—could easily be terminated. For purely political reasons, the agency sidelined work that was vital to its mission."

Since taking office in 2017, President Trump has attacked longstanding regulations designed to protect water, air, land and public health, in favor of fossil fuel development and dependency.

"Dismantling this research is in keeping with the administration's wholesale rollback of pollution oversight and public health protections," said Adrienne Hollis, a senior climate justice and health scientist at UCS. "Their actions increase the risk that environmental justice communities are facing from climate change and hazardous pollutants."

A study released last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office also concluded Superfund sites were vulnerable to climate change threats. In that study, researchers looked not only at sea level rise, but hurricanes, inland flooding and wildfire threats, and determined that 60 percent of Superfund sites across the county were threatened. 

The UCS study identified flooding at a Superfund site on the San Jacinto River near Houston as a case in point for the vulnerability of Superfund sites to storms intensified by climate change. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey ripped open the containment caps put over the toxic waste that had been dumped alongside the river by a paper mill in the 1960s. The toxins leaked into the river that runs through residential sections of the city.

"As sea levels continue to rise, multiple types of industrial facilities, and the contaminants they store, could be in the paths of extreme coastal floods—but the flooding of Superfund sites is particularly worrisome," according to the UCS report.

Using modeling, Carter projected sea level rise scenarios out to 2100, based on an expected range of sea level rise of approximately 1 to 6.5 feet. The high sea-level rise scenario puts in jeopardy more than 1,000 Superfund sites within 10 miles of either the East or Gulf Coasts. Florida, New Jersey and New York are especially vulnerable because of the large number of sites situated along their coastlines, according to the study.

The Costs of Superfund Mitigation Are Enormous

No matter the expense or the politics, these sites have to be examined for flooding vulnerabilities, said Bill Muno, a former EPA director of superfund for the Great Lakes Region. 

Yet Muno said he doubts that will happen, because of the enormous cost associated with reinforcing the sites and the current atmosphere of climate denial fostered by the Trump Administration.

"I can see where, for existing disposal sites, there would be a feeling that because sea level rise is more of a prediction ...we'll deal with it when and if the time comes," he said. "This is a bit of denial that doesn't take into account the consequences of what could happen with these sites. There has to be some thinking ahead. I don't see that now."

The report also calculates the devastating human toll associated with flooded Superfund sites. 

Flooding can increase the chances that dangerous chemicals can be released and contaminate nearby land and water, putting communities at risk of adverse health effects. Especially hard hit could be more than 17 million people of color and low-income who live within five miles of a Superfund site facing flooding risk, according to the report.

"Our results suggest that if leaders continue to sideline science when making important decisions concerning future flooding of hazardous facilities, the health of millions of the country's most vulnerable people will be at risk," according to the report. "If sea levels continue to rise at rates expected in high heat-trapping emissions scenarios, we can expect the majority of coastal Superfund sites and the communities of color and low-income communities located near these sites to be at risk of extreme floods."

The report calls to task the president and EPA officials and says they must take immediate action to incorporate climate science into the decision-making process when considering the effects of future floods on Superfund sites.

"The EPA already has resources available to guide remediation project managers and others who manage Superfund sites regarding measures that can be put in place to adapt these facilities to withstand expected climate change effects," the report says. "However, other resources are needed to help stakeholders navigate complex climate change models for their sites as well as risk analysis frameworks."

The UCS report urges the EPA division responsible for Superfund sites to take a variety of actions, including the integration of information on the potential impacts of climate change effects into flood risk assessments, and the development of a policy requiring calculations of predicted flooding increases to ensure that communities are prepared. The report also calls for programs to train non-climate experts on the use of climate modeling and its application for designing protective measures at Superfund sites.

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