Climate Change Could Make 327 Toxic Sites Even More Dangerous

When Hurricane Harvey ravaged parts of Texas, including several Superfund sites, the natural disaster highlighted our vulnerability to climate change. How many low-lying Superfund sites and other areas of environmental concern could be affected by flooding and rising sea levels? Investigators at the AP decided to find out, and their discovery is disturbing: They identified 327 at-risk Superfund sites.

While you may have heard the term “Superfund” thrown around, here are some specifics: In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Cleanup, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which has come to be known as the Superfund. It was a direct response to the growing environmental movement of the 1970s, which educated Americans about the risk of living and working near contaminated sites like Love Canal.

The legislation provides federal funds for cleaning up qualifying contaminated sites, and when a responsible party is identified, that party must pay for cleanup or reimburse the Environmental Protection Agency. This ensures that when bad actors leave costly messes behind, the community doesn’t have to bear the costs.

Over 1,500 Superfund sites across the nation have been identified as eligible, and there may be some in your community.

Superfund sites may contain a variety of toxic compounds including petroleum products, dioxins and heavy metals, in both the soil and groundwater. Cleanup — known as environmental remediation — can involve removing contaminated material, waiting for toxins to dilute naturally or taking advantage of cool resources like plants and mushrooms to absorb harmful substances. The best option depends on the specifics of the site — one reason it’s important to take part in the public comment process associated with Superfund sites.

But what happens when a Superfund site floods? The controls used to prevent leaching may fail, distributing toxins around the neighboring area. The AP identified two million people at risk of this precise scenario due to their proximity to Superfund sites. New Jersey and California lead this list, with a combined 70 Superfund sites in flood zones between them, and they’re closely followed by Florida, with 33.

The EPA has taken some steps to reduce risks, including adding plastic sheeting and fencing to hold materials back and limit rain exposure. Under the Obama administration, the agency recognized that climate change resilience needed to be a part of its pollution control program — because it’s important to ensure that contamination doesn’t get worse.

Some of the documentation surrounding climate change and the Superfund was still extant on the EPA website as of the close of 2017, but given the Trump administration’s hostility towards the environment and documented disbelief in climate change, the concerted efforts of the Obama era are unlikely to continue.

Notably, these sites are often located in low-income neighborhoods — particularly communities of color. These communities may lack the resources they need to fight for full environmental cleanup, making it easy for polluters to dodge responsibility for their actions. This isn’t a coincidence; critics refer to this practice as “environmental racism,” arguing that situating toxic operations in communities of color is another form of racial injustice.

The EPA actually has an Office of Environmental Justice, founded in 1992 under President George H.W. Bush. The division’s leader resigned almost as soon as Donald Trump took office, expressing concerns about the program’s future and the president’s attitude toward environmental issues. Mustafa Ali said he felt that he needed to stand up, emphasizing the fact that the EPA plays a vital role in quality of life for communities of color across the United States.

Trump’s budget includes dramatic slashes to the Superfund’s operating budget, with no indication that alternative sources of funding will become available. That means that the number of sites on the priority list for cleanup will shrink, and without climate resilience as a factor in determining where the areas of greatest concern lie, the EPA will be leaving vulnerable sites at risk.