Climate change poses a growing threat to hundreds of hazardous waste Superfund sites

By David Hasemyer, InsideClimate News, and Lise Olsen, Texas Observer
Sept. 24, 2020

This article was published in partnership with InsideClimate News, a nonprofit, independent news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment, and the Texas Observer, a nonprofit investigative news outlet. This is part 1 of “Super Threats,” a series on Superfund sites and climate change.

BARRETT, Texas — Fred Barrett thought he’d wait out Hurricane Harvey at his home in this town outside Houston, founded by his great-grandfather in 1889. He prepared for heavy rain, wind and flooding.

But when the murky brown San Jacinto River jumped its banks, flooding Barrett’s neighbors and an ominous cluster of four hazardous waste Superfund sites nearby, Barrett worried the catastrophic 2017 storm could fill his community with deadly toxins. 

Fred Barrett at his family’s homestead. (Spike Johnson)

Fred Barrett at his family’s homestead. (Spike Johnson)

The most notorious of the sites, the San Jacinto Waste Pits, was smashed by 16 feet of water that undermined a concrete cap covering the site’s toxic contents, washing dioxin downriver. A dive team from the Environmental Protection Agency later found the potent human carcinogen in river sediment at 2,300 times the agency’s standard for cleanup. 

Several miles upriver, Barrett, a historically Black town, shares a wooded area with the French Limited Superfund site. That toxic dump was built so close to the Barrett family homestead that, as a young man, Fred Barrett could hear the rumble of tractor-trailers hauling chemical waste, including carcinogens, down the Gulf Pump Road to a foul pond. 

Like the San Jacinto Waste Pits, the French Limited site was also inundated by Hurricane Harvey, leading Barrett, 67, and his neighbors to worry that its contaminants had spread. The EPA did not report any leakage, but he and other residents wondered what the floodwaters could have carried offsite. 

“What happened back there?” Barrett said in a recent interview. “It was Harvey that made it seem more crucial. We wanted to know: What contaminants are still there — and where is it going once it got out of its banks? Who’s watching the chicken coop?”

Warning signs at the French Limited Superfund site. (Spike Johnson)

Warning signs at the French Limited Superfund site. (Spike Johnson)

Those questions highlight the perils posed by the nation’s industrial wastelands as they are increasingly battered by extreme weather worsened by climate change. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned in a report last year that French Limited was among 945 Superfund sites across the United States vulnerable to hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise, increased precipitation or wildfires, all of which are intensifying as the planet warms.

Far from a theoretical future threat, the Superfund sites are a clear and present danger. 

But the Trump administration no longer makes reference to climate change in addressing these risks at Superfund sites, InsideClimate News, the Texas Observer and NBC News found in an investigation of the Superfund program and the EPA’s response to climate-related threats. Reporters interviewed more than 50 experts inside and outside of government, reviewed thousands of pages of EPA records and analyzed federal data on Superfund sites to determine the extent of the danger to human health and the environment and the missed opportunities to mitigate it.

Among the findings:

  • More than 700 of the 945 sites vulnerable to climate change are in 100-year flood plains, meaning they have a chance of 1 percent or more of flooding in any given year, and over 80 regularly flood at high tide or are already permanently submerged. Forty-nine of the sites face triple threats — they are in 100-year flood plains, regularly flood and are vulnerable to hurricanes, according to EPA and GAO data. The San Jacinto Waste Pits site is on the triple threat list, as is the Alcoa site on Lavaca Bay in Texas, and the LCP Chemical site on coastal marshlands in Glynn County, Georgia, which is contaminated by mercury and PCBs.
  • Seventy-four sites threatened by climate change nationwide contain toxic wastes that remain uncontrolled and could damage human health, according to the EPA’s own risk assessments. Nine of those sites are in New Jersey, including the Diamond Alkali site in Newark, a shuttered chemical plant that pumped the herbicide Agent Orange into the Passaic River. 
  • The Trump administration has largely abandoned plans written by all 10 EPA regional offices that factored climate change risks into Superfund planning and remediation, former officials say. The plans were written in response to a 2012 Obama administration directive; the following year, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that made climate change preparedness a national priority. President Donald Trump rescinded the order in March 2017. The GAO found that the EPA’s current five-year strategic plan makes no reference to climate-related risks in relation to Superfund site management, planning or cleanups.  
  • Rather than cleaning up toxic waste at Superfund sites, the EPA began in the 1990s to cap the sites with soil, clay or even concrete, a less expensive method that leaves the chemicals in place. Experts and former EPA officials argue that practice has left those sites increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes, sea level rise, flooding and wildfires. At the San Jacinto Waste Pits, a concrete cap that was installed in 2011 after a previous hurricane didn’t stop the site from flooding and leaching chemicals during Hurricane Harvey, the EPA’s own inspectors found.

Molly Block, an EPA spokeswoman, said in response to written questions that none of the 76 Superfund sites within the path of Hurricane Laura in late August were damaged, providing evidence that “our remedies over the years are demonstrating to be storm resilient in the field.”  

But Judith Enck, the former EPA Region 2 administrator responsible for a crowded group of Superfund sites in New Jersey and New York under the Obama administration, said the agency “is completely unprepared to deal with climate change and Superfund sites.”