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Hundreds of former US industrial sites are at risk of releasing toxics because of climate change

EPA must better prepare for more frequent or severe weather events affecting Superfund sites, report says

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
November 20, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 46

Aerial image of American Cyanamid site in New Jersey.
Credit: Google Earth
This American Cyanamid site, located adjacent to the Raritan River in New Jersey, flooded from Hurricane Irene in 2011.

Nearly 950 US Superfund sites may fail to contain toxic waste because of climate change, says a new report by the US Government Accountability Office. Consequently, the GAO recommends that the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Superfund cleanup program for sites that are neither federal facilities nor on federal land, better prepare and take precautions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Those impacts include flooding, wildfires, sea level rise, and storm surge, according to the report, which includes an interactive national map of the sites.

The GAO, which audits and investigates government programs for the US Congress, notes that the EPA has taken some actions but needs to do more to incorporate potential climate impacts on human health and the environment into its decision making to ensure long-term protection at these sites.

Superfund is a national program for cleaning up or containing hazardous chemicals at former industrial sites. The EPA currently oversees 1,571 such sites, which are contaminated with substances such as arsenic, dioxin, and lead. International scientists have warned that climate change may make some natural disasters more frequent or more intense, damaging Superfund sites and releasing contaminants into the surrounding environment, including nearby communities, the report notes.

For instance, the report offers the example of the American Cyanamid site in New Jersey, a 233 hectare (575 acre) former chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturer. After 90 years of operation, a mix of chemicals including toxic acid tars remained held in on-site waste ponds. After flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011, the EPA tried to contain the contamination with a series of partially successful efforts. In 2018, the EPA finally ordered that the tars be removed and treated off-site.

The EPA, however, takes issue with the GAO’s assessment. “The EPA strongly believes the Superfund program’s existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events, are woven into risk assessments,” wrote Peter Wright, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, to the GAO in response to the report.

The GAO report was requested by 11 Democratic members of Congress, who wrote in a letter to the EPA: “We believe that EPA’s refusal to implement GAO’s recommendations could result in real harm to human health and the environment as the effects of climate change become more frequent and intense.” They also ordered the EPA to specifically demonstrate how its Superfund policies address climate change.



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