Superfund Sites Unprepared for Climate Change, Hurricanes

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By Sylvia Carignan

EPA cleanup policies may not be enough to protect human health as contaminants from superfund sites threaten to spread in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath, community advocates and climate change groups say.

Environmental Protection Agency plans have cut climate change preparedness efforts, years after acknowledging the threats that climate change and severe weather pose to superfund sites in a 2014 agency report. Meanwhile, community advocates at two superfund sites hit by Hurricane Harvey say floodwaters likely have swept contaminants outside secured perimeters into communities and bodies of water as a result of insufficient remedies.

At the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site outside Houston, Lois Gibbs, founder of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, suspects a protective “temporary” cover placed over contaminated waste may not be holding up.

On-site inspections won’t be possible until the water recedes, but the cap “has been effective in safeguarding the site,” according to a statement from International Paper, McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., and Waste Management, Inc., all companies involved in the cleanup efforts.

The EPA started assessing storm damage at affected superfund sites Aug. 30 but hasn't specified which properties it has reviewed. According to an agency spokesperson, the EPA plans to assess 31 sites that may have been affected by the hurricane.

There are 13 federal superfund sites in Harris County, Texas, which includes the city of Houston.

Climate Change

Superfund sites in Region 6, which covers Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and could face flooding from more intense, more frequent storms that may lead to contaminant releases, according to a 2014 EPA report.

“With hurricanes affecting the Gulf of Mexico coast perhaps being more powerful, coupled with an expected increase in extreme precipitation events, emergency response in Region 6 will be further challenged,” the Climate Change Adaptation Plan said.

The agency hasn’t been able to fully implement its plans to deal with those threats at superfund sites.

“Most cleanup plans haven’t addressed climate change,” Barbara Maco, vice president of the U.S. Sustainable Remediation Forum Board of Trustees, said. In addition, the EPA’s five-year reviews of superfund sites to determine whether the chosen remedy still protects human health and the environment “don’t specifically address climate change.”

Maco said it’s “not surprising” that hurricane-affected sites in the Houston area may need further remediation as a result of storm damage.

Under Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA Office of Land and Emergency Management omitted the climate adaptation plan from 2017 draft guidance document for national program managers, proposing to cut it altogether.

“There’s a general concern that climate change adaptation will be neglected going forward,” John Simon, president of the forum’s board, told Bloomberg BNA.

Regarding the EPA’s climate change plan, an EPA spokesperson said “the agency is refocusing its efforts on a comprehensive back-to-basics strategy that maintains core environmental protection with respect to statutory and regulatory obligations.”

The agency plans to release the final version of that draft guidance document at the end of September.

San Jacinto River

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site outside Houston contains impounded paper-mill waste. In the early 2000s, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found dioxins and furans in sediment, fish, and crabs.

“The original way they found out the pits were leaking was through a similar storm many years ago,” Gibbs told Bloomberg BNA, “and the dioxin washed up into the properties there.”

The EPA’s proposed remediation plan for the San Jacinto River site acknowledges the potential for flooding and changes in the river’s path to make containment options unreliable. An armored cap placed on some of the waste in 2011 has needed periodic repairs.

Removing the waste would “eliminate the possibility of a catastrophic release that could result in a much more severe impact to the environment,” the proposed plan said. “The possibility of long-term and extensive flooding, even permanent submersion, could affect the integrity of engineered remedies at some sites where waste has been consolidated and remains in place.”

The proposed plan to remove the contaminants from the site would cost nearly $100 million. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality opposes EPA’s proposed plan, particularly the cost and what it views as inadequate short-term risk evaluations.

The San Jacinto River site is one of nine where Pruitt will have the final word on the remedial plan.

Many Diversified Interests Inc

The EPA also is working to remediate the Many Diversified Interests Inc. Superfund Site in Houston, but Hurricane Harvey has inundated the property.

“There are these massive pools of water sitting on the actual site,” said Yvette Arellano, spokesperson for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, which is tracking progress of remediation at the site.

The agency divided the remediation process to separately address groundwater contamination and the site’s soil contamination and determined that groundwater cleanup was complete and deleted that portion of the site from the National Priorities List.

The EPA did remove lead-contaminated soil from about 150 homes, according to agency records. However, Arellano said homes are sitting on cinderblocks in the nearby community, and the EPA didn't test for lead underneath them.

“Even though they sat low to the ground, it still means there’s contamination under those homes,” she said.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will start inspecting affected sites when they are able to enter them, according to a statement.

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