Looming Hurricane Leaves Limited Options to Secure Contaminated Sites

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By Sylvia Carignan

The EPA’s decades-long process for cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated sites isn’t suited for quick response to severe weather and won’t help dozens of sites in the path of Hurricane Florence, critics say.

More than 40 contaminated sites, oil facilities, and properties with special emergency response plans are in areas under threat from the hurricane, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Those sites are along the Eastern seaboard, from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland and Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia to the Koppers Co. Superfund Site in North Carolina and Macalloy Corp. Superfund Site in North Charleston, S.C. The agency announced Sept. 13 it is also assessing sites in Georgia.

Hurricane warnings are in effect in coastal regions across the Carolinas in advance of the storm’s arrival. Florence is expected to stall or move slowly once it makes landfall, according to the National Weather Service.

In advance of the storm, the EPA is reviewing the vulnerability of Superfund sites in coastal zones that Florence could hit.

The EPA’s approach to cleaning up contaminated sites can leave few options for companies looking to protect their sites from more immediate threats such as storm surge, flooding, and hurricanes, critics say.

“The kind of engineering that is done at Superfund sites is not the kind of thing you do overnight,” Maggie Peloso, partner at Vinson & Elkins LLP in Washington, D.C., told Bloomberg Environment. “It takes a lot of time to design a remedy, ensure it’s protective of public health, get agency approval, and execute it.”

But short-term measures exist for responding to severe weather, Tracy Hester, who’s on faculty at the University of Houston Law Center, told Bloomberg Environment. Those “brute force” fixes include pumping water out of lagoons to reduce the chances of them spilling over, or closing down wells to prevent water from seeping into aquifers.

“You do what you can that’s quick and effective,” he said.

The Macalloy Corp. site has been on the EPA National Priorities List, which identifies the most contaminated sites in the country, since 2000. The Koppers Co. site has been on the list since 1994.

Facing Unique Threats

Many Superfund sites resulting from industrial operations are in flood plains, Erik Olson, senior director of food and health at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., told Bloomberg Environment.

“Companies located in a flood plain for access to water and access to shipping channels in some cases, and then they just dumped locally, on their property,” he said. Those sites, in particular, need to plan for flooding, which may include constructing berms and emptying hazardous material tanks, he said.

“It was not a great idea to store any of that stuff, in the first place, in a flood plain,” he said.

Contaminated sites with buried waste, such as the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site outside Houston, face different threats than other sites. The San Jacinto site’s waste pits, contaminated by dioxins, have a protective, multi-layer cap intended to keep the waste from washing into the river.

Companies working on the site’s cleanup are making repairs to the cap after Hurricane Harvey swept through the area last year.

“If you’ve got some kind of a cap in place, and you have a few days warning for a storm, that is not enough time to go out and get regulatory approval” for a significant change to the site’s cleanup plan, Peloso said.

Companies need to ensure they have a plan for responding quickly to severe weather, once it hits, Hester said.

Two issues arose after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston: There was no way to access the sites during or immediately after flooding, and there was a delay in assessing potential contamination, he said.

Potentially responsible parties and others that may respond to a site need to have discussions about how to reach a site even if the roads are washed out or flooded, he said.

Up for Review

An interim solution may be using the EPA’s periodic review program to incorporate new information about the risks of climate change, Peloso said. Every five years, the agency reviews a Superfund site’s planned remedy to ensure it is still protective of human health and the environment.

“The agency could say, we feel comfortable saying some level of climate impacts are reasonably likely, and we’d like to factor those in,” Peloso said.

Sites that were not threatened by coastal weather decades ago may see their risks change because of sea level rise, she said. Those may benefit from reassessment in a five-year review.

“Especially at sites that were remediated a longer time ago, many of them were designed to be upland sites forever,” Peloso said.

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