DATE: July 28, 2020
SNIP: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.