A federal report found that about half of the toxic Superfund sites found in Indiana may be impacted by flooding caused by climate change, potentially dispersing pollutants to nearby communities.
The Government Accountability Office reviewed 1,571 active and deleted Superfund sites across the United States and found that about 60% of those sites may be impacted by climate change effects like flooding, storm surge, wildfires and rising sea levels.
The Environmental Protection Agency disagrees with key findings of the report, saying Superfund sites are resilient enough to withstand adverse climate-induced conditions.
Superfund sites are sites contaminated by hazardous waste that require a long-term U.S. Environmental Protection Agency response to stop the contamination from spreading and to clean up existing contamination.
That report found that 25 of Indiana’s 53 Superfund sites face the highest flood hazard risk. Two other sites face moderate or lower flood hazard risk.
“We found that 60% of the Superfund sites, or 945 of these Superfund sites that are located throughout the U.S., may be impacted by one or more of these potential climate change effects,” Alfredo Gomez, a director in the GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team told the Indiana Environmental Reporter.
“Sites along the coast and the southeastern part of the U.S. are perhaps more at risk from sea level rise, storm surge and flooding. Sites out west, like California, may be more at risk from wildfire. Sites along rivers may also be at risk from these impacts, so it just sort of depends, regionally, where you are.”
A REAL THREAT FOR HOOSIERS
Researchers have found that average yearly precipitation around the state has been on the rise since the 1950s.
Climate scientists and researchers found that climate change has affected and will continue to affect precipitation levels, potentially increasing the risk of flooding.
Many of the threatened Superfund sites in Indiana are located near rivers or other bodies of water.
Floodwaters could push toxic pollutants towards communities living near or downstream from Superfund sites in the state’s most populous cities and industrial regions.
In Indianapolis, the Keystone corridor groundwater contamination site along the White River could spread toxic volatile organic compounds like trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene and vinyl chloride to the nearly 9,500 people living within a mile of the site.
The 35-acre Fort Wayne reduction dump is located on a 100-year flood plain on the south bank of the Maumee River. Flooding could spread heavy metals, PCBs and other contaminants known as polycyclic aromatic compounds.
In northwestern Indiana, flooding near the USS Lead and Gary development landfill Superfund sites could spread toxic lead, arsenic and many other toxic solid waste pollutants to East Chicago and Gary residents living along the Grand Calumet River.
Climate change may already be affecting the likelihood of flooding at Grand Calumet River. The river is experiencing historic crests more often, with the river’s seven highest crests coming within the last 24 years. Three of those happened in 2018 and 2019.
In Elkhart, the Main Street well field, North Shore Drive and Lusher Street groundwater contamination Superfund sites are located along the St. Joseph River, which had three of its 10 highest crests within the last 11 years. Those sites could pollute nearby areas and drinking water with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, chloroform and other chemicals.
ENSURING PROPER PLANNING
Along with the warning about potential climate change vulnerabilities for Superfund sites, the GAO also gave the EPA recommendations to improve response and protect human health and the environment.
The GAO recommended that the director of the EPA’s Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation improve information on the boundaries of Superfund sites and provide direction on how to integrate climate change risks into the site’s risk assessments and response.
The GAO also recommended that EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler clarify how the EPA’s actions to manage the climate-induced risks at the Superfund sites align with the agency’s current goals and objectives.
With these recommendations, the GAO essentially states that acknowledging climate change is necessary for preventing climate change effects from impacting Superfund sites.
The EPA agreed only to improve information on the boundaries of Superfund sites.
In a response to the GAO that includes the term “climate change” only when mentioning the title of the report, the EPA said it recognized the risks to Superfund sites but strongly believed it was already adequately prepared to deal with them.
“The EPA recognizes the importance of ensuring Superfund site cleanups are resilient in the face of existing risks and extreme weather events, and the agency has taken measures to include vulnerability analyses and adaptation planning into Superfund activities.” wrote assistant EPA administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management Peter C. Wright.
Wright said that the EPA’s experience with extreme weather in 2017 and 2018 “demonstrated that the Agency’s efforts are working to address extreme weather challenges.” He said the EPA performed an analysis of Superfund site remedies and found that they were resilient overall.
Wright said that, although tropical force winds and flooding affected more than 250 sites, only 16 reported minor damage, and none of the sites’ “protectiveness” was impaired.
An EPA report released several months after Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast of Texas found that toxic chemicals from one Superfund site, the San Jacinto River waste pits, may have entered the San Jacinto River due to massive flooding.
Although Hurricane Harvey is considered a once-in-a-1,000 year event, historic severe weather events are happening much more regularly and could reduce the effectiveness of EPA’s Superfund protections.
Researchers have found that “100-year” floods could happen every one to 30 years in some parts of the country. Repeated historic severe weather events could eventually wear down protective caps that cover some contaminated Superfund sites.