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SOURCE: Inside Climate News

DATE: November 19, 2019

SNIP: Sixty percent of the nation’s heavily polluted Superfund sites—nearly 950 of them—are at risk from the impacts of climate change, including hurricane storm surges and flooding that could spread their toxic legacies into waterways, communities and farmland, a new federal report warns.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office report, released Monday, describes the increased risk of toxic substances being washed out by flooding at sites across the country, as well as wildfire risks that could send health-harming pollutants airborne.

It recommends that the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the federal Superfund program, start providing clear, agency-wide instructions on how its officials should incorporate climate change into Superfund site risk assessments and response decisions.

That would be a change for the current administration. Currently, the EPA does not include climate change in its agency-wide goals and objectives, preventing the agency from addressing the added risks at contaminated sites across the country as the planet warms, the report concluded.

Of the nearly 1,600 “national priority list” Superfund sites not on federal land that were examined in the report, more than half are at increased risk from flooding or storm surge.

One example is a site in Bridgewater, New Jersey, with contaminated soil and groundwater from 27 unlined chemical waste lagoons stemming from more than 90 years of chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing. The site is in a 100-year flood zone and could be reached by the storm surge from powerful hurricanes. Heavy rains from Hurricane Irene flooded the site in 2011, though subsequent testing by EPA concluded no significant release of contaminants occurred.

Another example is the San Jacinto River waste pits near Houston. Dioxins, chemicals that can cause cancer and liver and nerve damage, were dumped in and near the San Jacinto River from paper mills in the 1960s. In 2010, the EPA required the paper mills responsible for the cleanup to install a temporary cap over the waste. Since installation, however, the EPA has observed repeated damage to the cap, including during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, damage that led to high levels of dioxins detected in the area.

More than 200 sites are at increased risk from wildfires, the GAO found. One example highlighted in the report is the Iron Mountain Mine site near Redding, California. Acidic runoff from the mine includes copper, cadmium and zinc that are toxic to fish and other aquatic life. In 2018, the Carr Fire nearly destroyed the site’s water treatment system, and fire was subsequently discovered inside a pipe leading into the mine that could have led to an explosion had it reached the mine.

The GAO also found that nearly 100 Superfund sites would be inundated if sea level rose by 1 foot.

Globally, sea level has risen 7 to 8 inches since 1900, and it is expected to rise another half foot to 1.2 feet compared to 2000 levels by 2050, according to the National Climate Assessment. In its report, the GAO also cites the National Climate Assessment’s warnings about how rising global temperatures exacerbate hurricanes, storm surges, wildfires and flooding.

EPA officials in six of the agency’s 10 regions said they have not used climate change projections for flooding or rainfall in Superfund site assessments, according to the report.