WASHINGTON — At least 60% of U.S. Superfund sites are in areas vulnerable to flooding or other worsening disasters of climate change, and the Trump administration’s reluctance to directly acknowledge global warming is deterring efforts to safeguard them, a congressional watchdog agency says.
In a report issued on Monday, the Government Accountability Office called on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler to state directly that dealing with the rising risks of seas, storms or wildfires breaching Superfund sites under climate change is part of the agency’s mission.
The findings in the report emphasize the challenges for government agencies under President Donald Trump, who frequently mocks scientists’ urgent warnings on global heating. Wheeler’s highest-profile public remarks on the matter came in a March CBS interview, when he called global heating “an important change” but not one of the agency’s most pressing problems.
Largely avoiding the words “climate change,” the agency in a formal response
rejected the GAO finding that the agency was making a mistake by not spelling out that hardening Superfund sites against a worsening climate was part and parcel of the EPA’s mission.
The GAO review comes after a 2017 review by The Associated Press found that 2 million people in the U.S. live within a mile of 327 Superfund sites in areas prone to flooding or vulnerable to sea level rise caused by climate change. The AP analyzed national flood zone maps, census data and EPA records in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded more than a dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area, with breaches reported at two. At the time, an EPA spokesman derided AP’s reporting as “fear-mongering.”
GAO investigators looked at 1,571 Superfund sites, contaminated locations that, according to the EPA website, exist nationally due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open or otherwise improperly managed. That number does not include Superfund sites owned by the Defense Department and other federal agencies.
At least 945 of them are in areas that scientists have identified as at greater risk of floods, storm surge from major hurricanes, wildfires or sea-level rise of 3 feet or more, the GAO says.
Broken down, that includes 783 Superfund sites at greater risk of flooding under climate change, 234 Superfund sites at high or very high risk from wildfires and 187 sites vulnerable to storm surge from any Category 4 or 5 hurricane, the researchers said.
GAO investigators cited the San Jacinto River waste pits where record rains under Hurricane Harvey in 2017 again dissolved part of a temporary cap on a 40-acre (16-hectare) Superfund site, exposing contaminated material. EPA testing there afterward found dioxin at more than 2,000 times the maximum recommended level.
When it comes to climate change, Superfund sites in that coastal part of Texas “are incredibly vulnerable,” said Jackie Young, head of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance advocacy group. While the EPA has since directed that the toxic waste at the damaged site be moved to higher ground, other Superfund sites in the area are still at risk, Young said.
“It’s highly unacceptable that our communities and our first responders” in hurricanes and other disasters “may be exposed to contaminants someone left decades prior,” Young said.
Young added that repeated storms and the inability to secure the waste pits in the San Jacinto River long-term (and even short-term) are driving factors behind the Record of Decision to fully remediate the waste pits.
“The upper Texas coast is one of the most threatened coasts in the world from the relative rate of sea-level rise and subsidence,” Young said. “The San Jacinto River is a tidally influenced waterway that has seen dramatic storm surge in less than worst-case scenarios. This is no place to attempt to store highly toxic waste when also working to combat Mother Nature.”
Since the EPA came to an agreement with the potentially responsible parties, the two sides have been working together on the final details on how to implement the EPA’s $115 million cleanup plan. The cleanup is estimated to about 29 months to complete, and they will use a cofferdam to encompass the site so that they can excavate the contaminated material in the dry.
The San Jacinto River Waste Pits are a series of toxic dioxin-filled pits along the San Jacinto River, located just north of the Interstate 10 bridge. www.EPA.gov/tx/sjrwp.
The EPA’s current five-year strategic plan does not include goals or strategies for handling growing risks under climate change, the GAO report said. The most recent previous five-year plan, under President Barack Obama’s administration, listed addressing climate change as one of four main strategic goals for the agency. Obama-era plans specifically addressed climate change’s impact for Superfund sites, the investigators said.
A GAO review of climate-change-minded planning for keeping the arsenic, mercury, PCBs and other dangerous waste at Superfund sites away from the public and environment found big differences among the 10 EPA regions nationally.
Officials at four EPA regions were able point to changes they’d made at specific Superfund sites to try to adapt to climate change, the report said. At the country’s other EPA regions, however, EPA officials said they had not looked at climate-change projection for flooding or rainfall to gauge risks at Superfund sites, investigators said.
In the EPA region covering Texas and four other south-central states — a region that includes the Gulf of Mexico and Houston and other oil and petrochemical hubs frequently battered by hurricanes — officials “told us that they do not include potential impacts of climate change effects or changes in the frequency of natural disasters into their assessments,” the GAO investigators wrote.
Senate Democrats asked for the review of how ready EPA’s Superfund program is for climate change.
Baytown Sun reporter Christopher James contributed to this report.