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article imageClimate crisis threatens 60 percent of toxic Superfund sites

By Karen Graham     Nov 20, 2019 in Environment
Washington - Hundreds of polluted Superfund sites face an increased risk of inundation from sea-level rise, flooding exacerbated by global warming or wildfires, Congress’s watchdog warns.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned in a report publicly released Monday that 60 percent of the nation's heavily polluted Superfund sites—nearly 950 of them - are at risk from being impacted by potential effects of the climate crisis, including flooding, storm surge, wildfires, and sea-level rise.
Superfund sites are locations that are so contaminated that they’ve been placed on a National Priorities List (NPL) by the Environmental Protection Agency. The list contains the most serious uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites throughout the United States and its territories.
Of 1,571 nonfederal Superfund sites spread across the country that the GAO examined, 945 are vulnerable to some of the most extreme effects of climate change. The GAO plotted the vulnerable sites on a color-coded U.S. map showing which sites were at risk from floods, wildfires, storm surge or sea-level rise.
One striking example of a toxic Superfund site is the San Jacinto River Waste Pits near Houston, Texas, outlined on page 32 of the GAO's report. The toxic waste in question is a by-product of the pulp bleaching process used by paper mills. Cancer-causing dioxins and furans are two of the toxic chemicals found in the pits.
In 2010, at the EPA's request, a temporary cap was placed over the waste pits, but over the years, the EPA has observed repeated damage to the cap, including during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. After the storm, according to The Verge, officials found that dioxin levels in the river sediment nearby were more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA normally allows.
Actually, at least 13 of the 41 Superfund toxic waste sites in the Houston area were flooded or damaged by Hurricane Harvey, according to the EPA, adding to the worries of health officials already concerned over bacterial contamination in the floodwaters.
The Valley of Drums  a toxic waste dump located in Bullitt Co. Kentucky is one of the reasons the U....
The Valley of Drums, a toxic waste dump located in Bullitt Co. Kentucky is one of the reasons the U.S. Superfund law was enacted.
Environmental Protection Agency
The GAO also found that nearly 100 Superfund sites located in coastal areas would be inundated if sea level rose by 1 foot. Additionally, the GAO identified 187 nonfederal NPL sites—12 percent—in areas that may be inundated by storm surge corresponding to Category 4 or 5 hurricanes, the highest possible category, based on NOAA’s storm surge model as of November 2018.
The GAO also cites the National Climate Assessment's warnings about how rising global temperatures exacerbate hurricanes, storm surges, wildfires, and flooding. The government watchdog also raises concerns over the absence of any mention of climate change in the EPA’s current strategic plan.
Coastal flooding is often the greatest threat to life and property during storms.
Coastal flooding is often the greatest threat to life and property during storms.
The lack of climate change strategies is in accordance with the current administration's about-face of any environmental rules surrounding the previous presidency. “Essentially, putting something in a strategic plan means that the senior official at the agency thinks it’s important,” the spokesperson at the GAO tells The Verge. “If it’s not important, will efforts on the ground fade out because people aren’t getting that attention from above?”
Of the four recommendations the GAO made to the EPA, found on page 48 of its report, the environmental agency has agreed to support only one - and that is its agreement to clarify the boundaries of toxic sites on its National Priorities List.
“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 nonfederal [National Priorities List] sites,” EPA Assistant Administrator Peter Wright responded to The Verge in an email.
More about superfund sites, Toxins, Climate crisis, Floods, firestorms
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