Climate change threatens 945 US toxic waste sites with flood and fire

Superfund sites like the Highlands Acid Pit in Texas, shown here flooded by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, are at dire risk from climate change.
Superfund sites like the Highlands Acid Pit in Texas, shown here flooded by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, are at dire risk from climate change.
Image: AP Photo/Jason Dearen
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You really, really don’t want a toxic waste site to flood. But 60% of the waste sites designated the most hazardous in the US, known as “Superfund” sites, are threatened by rising sea levels, flooding, storm surge, and wildfires made more destructive and frequent by climate change, according to a report released Monday (Nov 18) by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

That’s 945 toxic waste sites in the crosshairs. And right now, the US environment agency doesn’t prioritize the threat of climate change in management plans for its Superfund sites—whether indirectly through lack of resources, or directly, through lack of any clear guidance on climate change, according to the report.

In the majority of cases—783 of the at-risk Superfund sites—sea level rise and flooding pose the biggest risks, according to the GAO, a nonpartisan branch of the federal government that audits agencies and federal spending. Historically, chemical plants and sites of heavy industry were often located near coasts and waterways, to take advantage of the ease of shipping products by water and proximity to water for cooling. That means many present-day Superfund sites are near water, too. 

What was once a practical choice is now becoming a hazard. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston, Texas and the surrounding region, and flooded 13 of the 41 Superfund sites in the area hit by the storm. At the San Jacinto River Waste Pits superfund site in Houston, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dive team discovered dioxin levels more than 2,000 times higher than the maximum levels the agency recommended for the site, Houston Public Media reported. The Superfund site’s protective cap had been damaged in the floods.

Wildfire also threatens Superfund sites, particularly in the American West, which has seen a steady increase in both frequency and size of fires over the last six decades. For example, the 4,400-acre Iron Mountain Mine superfund site near Redding, California, which is contaminated by acid mine drainage laden with copper, cadmium, and zinc, is located in an area “with high or very high wildfire hazard potential,” the GAO report reads. 

In 2018, the devastating Carr Fire burned through the site, scorching pipes that convey acid mine drainage to a water treatment system, nearly destroying the means of cleaning the hazardous water before it reaches the environment. Firefighters managed to put out the fire before it reached the mine’s remaining ore, “which could have led to an explosion,” GAO writes. It was a near miss. 

GAO investigators asked different regional offices of the US Environmental Protection Agency what they were doing to address the impact of climate change on Superfund sites. What emerged was a picture of an agency strapped for resources and ill-equipped to plan ahead.

“Officials from Region 10 told us that they had a climate change advisor who helped integrate climate change into all aspects of the region’s work, but that person retired,” the GAO report reads. “The region was unable to fill the position because of resource constraints.”

In other cases, EPA regional offices—in particular Region 6, which includes Texas—said that climate change itself was simply too taboo to address. “EPA officials from three regions told us that they face challenges related to the sensitive nature of climate change,” GAO writes. “For example, officials in Region 6 told us that when they engaged with the local community during the decision making process for the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site in Texas, they avoided using the term climate change because of concerns that the charged term would alienate some community members.”

Region 6, meanwhile, is home to 23 superfund sites that are at risk of flooding from sea level rise, 70% of which “may already be inundated at high tide,” according to the report. The EPA as a whole should take a more aggressive approach to planning for climate change, the GAO report recommends, or else risk the safety of the sites.

But at EPA headquarters in Washington, DC, leadership downplayed the GAO’s findings. “The EPA strongly believes the Superfund program’s existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events, that may increase in intensity, duration, or frequency, are woven into risk response decisions at non-federal [National Priorities List] sites,” EPA assistant administrator Peter Wright said in a statement Monday. 

As the Washington Post notes, this is the latest in a string of instances where Trump’s EPA has rejected the warnings of outside experts on climate change, while simultaneously rolling back environmental rules meant to curb its effects.