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

Hurricanes, floods and wildfires imperil hundreds of toxic sites. But the Trump administration won't talk about the rising risks.
A now-shuttered aluminum plant poisoned Lavaca Bay in South Texas with mercury in the 1970s and later became a Superfund site.
A now-shuttered aluminum plant poisoned Lavaca Bay in South Texas with mercury in the 1970s and later became a Superfund site. Spike Johnson

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.
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.
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.
Orange buoys mark the boundaries of the San Jacinto Waste Pits in Highlands, Texas, in 2018.
Orange buoys mark the boundaries of the San Jacinto Waste Pits in Highlands, Texas, in 2018.Elizabeth Conley / Houston Chronicle via AP

In its analysis of Superfund sites, the GAO decided to include both active sites and sites that have been remediated, because the remediated sites may still contain contamination and could require additional protective work in the future, the agency said.

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.”

The U.S. Government Accountability Office identified 945 Superfund sites as vulnerable to extreme weather that is worsened by climate change.

74 of these sites threatened by climate change contain toxic wastes that remain uncontrolled and could damage human health.

49 of the sites face triple threats — they are in 100-year flood plains, regularly flood and are vulnerable to hurricanes.

110 sites are vulnerable to sea level rise of 3 feet or less.

187 of the sites are vulnerable to Category 4 or 5 hurricanes. Many of these sites have been hit by hurricanes in the last decade.

234 of the sites are at risk of wildfires. California had 18 sites identified as vulnerable — while North Carolina, New York and New Jersey all had more.

The Trump administration is now proposing a 26 percent cut in the EPA’s 2021 budget, which would strip $106 million from the Superfund cleanup program and eliminate all funding for so-called environmental justice communities impacted by Superfund sites — low-income and minority neighborhoods disproportionately affected by adverse health conditions and environmental problems.

The Trump appointee running the Superfund program, Peter C. Wright, is the former corporate counsel for Dow Chemical, a self-described “dioxin lawyer” whose job at Dow was partly to minimize the company’s financial responsibility for Superfund site cleanups. Wright has had to recuse himself from work on dozens of Superfund sites, including French Limited, where Dow was one of dozens of companies identified as being responsible.

The climate threat is already significant and growing. Scientists predicted in a 2018 analysis that hurricanes striking the East Coast and Southern states would become more frequent and more intense, with greater amounts of precipitation. Sea level rise along the Texas Gulf Coast will be twice as high as the global average, the analysis found.

Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rice University in Houston, said the EPA lacks the funding, political will and diligence to adequately re-evaluate vulnerable Superfund sites to protect public health and the environment. “There’s an accident waiting to happen,” he said.

EPA declined to make Administrator Andrew R. Wheeler or Wright available for interviews, but Block, the spokeswoman, said that the agency “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 response decisions.”

Enck, the former EPA administrator, disagreed, saying she does not think those risks are being adequately addressed. “Removing climate change from strategic planning makes Superfund sites vulnerable now and into the future,” she said. “It’s like going down a steep hill with failing brakes.”

Superfund: The government’s response to Love Canal

The EPA’s Superfund program was created in 1980 in response to health problems reported after a subdivision and school were built atop the Love Canal, a toxic-waste dump in Niagara Falls, New York. The program now includes more than 1,750 extremely hazardous sites on what the EPA calls the National Priorities List.

Toxic Waste Discovery In Love Canal, NY
A bulldozer pushes soil away from one of the tanks used to hold toxic waste in Love Canal, N.Y., in 1980.Joe Traver / Liaison / Getty Images

Initially, the cleanup program relied on a $1.6 billion trust fund with fees assessed on petroleum products. But Congress ended those fees in 1995. The Superfund trust fund went broke in 2003, shifting the burden to taxpayers and leaving the EPA to force “potentially responsible parties” to fund cleanups.

After Obama issued the November 2013 executive order on climate change, senior EPA staff in all 10 of the agency’s regions began finalizing plans to address vulnerabilities of Superfund sites to climate-related disasters.

“The message was clear: We need to take aggressive action now to stave off the worst effects of climate change,” said Betsy Southerland, who worked at the EPA for more than 30 years and left in 2017, fed up with the Trump administration’s dismantling of environmental regulations.

EPA officials across all regions were expected to adopt enforcement plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, slow the effects of climate change and harden infrastructure, including at Superfund sites.

“There are active Superfund cleanups expected to be ongoing for many years to come in the vulnerable Gulf Coast areas that will likely be impacted by energy shortages, flooding, storm surges, water shortages and other expected climate change impacts,” officials in EPA’s Region 6 office, covering Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Louisiana and Arkansas, wrote in their 2014 report.

But progress was slow. It took time to figure out how to implement those regional plans at individual Superfund sites — and how to pay for them. The Obama administration was criticized for cleaning up even fewer Superfund sites than previous administrations.

Then the Trump administration took over. Trump issued an executive order, “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” that repealed Obama’s climate change directive. Over the course of Trump’s term, EPA staffing dropped to its lowest level in more than 30 years.

Obama’s climate change initiative was largely abandoned under Trump’s EPA in favor of a focused approach that promised to speed cleanup at several dozen high-priority sites.

The administration has taken credit for a number of Superfund site cleanups, announcing last year that it had removed all or part of 27 sites from the National Priorities List, the most in 18 years. But cleanup of those sites had been underway for years, even decades, before Trump took office, records show.

Questions remain about whether all of those cleanups were adequate, given the increasing risks to many sites posed by climate change, environmental scientists, watchdogs and some former EPA officials say.

The EPA’s current national policy across all of its programs contains no reference to climate change.

“The new administration came in and said we can’t talk about climate change at EPA,” said Southerland, the former EPA official. “That was stunning,” she said, and stopped the work of factoring climate risks into cleanup plans “in its tracks.”

Bobby Griffin on his property along the San Jacinto River in Channelview, Texas, where he  found dangerous globules of mercury washed or blown ashore.
Bobby Griffin found dangerous globules of mercury on his property along the San Jacinto River in Channelview, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey.Eric Thayer / The New York Times via Redux
Globules of mercury found washed or blown ashore by Bobby Griffin on his property along the San Jacinto River in Channelview, Texas.
Eric Thayer / The New York Times via Redux

The hurricanes of 2017 flooded 252 Superfund sites

Like many in Greater Houston, Fred Barrett found himself marooned in his home as Hurricane Harvey dumped almost 60 inches of rain and the San Jacinto River overflowed its banks in late August 2017.

Downriver, residents in Channelview waded out of their wrecked homes and into contaminated water flowing through the San Jacinto Waste Pits. One flew a drone and identified what looked like damage to the pits' concrete cap, which is supposed to contain cancer-causing dioxins.

An EPA dive team later confirmed that damage to the cap had led to the dioxin leak. Samuel Coleman, Region 6 director at the time, said in a recent interview that leaving a pit full of dioxin in a riverbed had been “a mistake.” The site was finally targeted for cleanup. But the other three Superfund sites along the river banks were considered stable, despite the flooding.

In all, more than 252 Superfund sites nationwide flooded in hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma in 2017, according to EPA data. The EPA reported leaks of toxic waste at the U.S. Oil Superfund site outside Houston, as well as at the San Jacinto Waste Pits, and reported that 16 other sites had “at least minor damage” to fencing, access controls or secondary site structures. Environmentalists have questioned whether the inspections and cleanups at other sites were sufficient.

Jackie Young, who founded the nonprofit Texas Health and Environmental Alliance, said she is pleased with the EPA’s plans to finally remove the dioxin from the San Jacinto Waste Pits. But she worries about other toxic waste dumps, like French Limited, at risk from climate change that also have never been cleaned up.

French Limited is one of the sites that remain stuck in the monitoring phase.

From 1966 to 1971, 70 million gallons of toxic chemicals were deposited at the site, including known carcinogens like benzene and vinyl chloride, and dangerous heavy metals like arsenic. Government records show that more than 90 companies legally dumped there, including French Limited, Chevron Phillips Chemical, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Exxon, Halliburton and Texaco. Chevron said that it plays a small role among companies involved in remediation; none of the other companies responded to requests for comment. Around the time that the EPA declared the French Limited dump a Superfund site in 1993, those companies formed the French Limited Task Group.

The task group is no longer cleaning up the site, but provides regular reports about 23 kinds of contaminants inside three large wastewater plumes. The latest 2019 report describes how one plume of cancer-causing benzene seemed to move in tests conducted after Harvey. A consultant who provides information to the EPA on behalf of the companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Hundreds of residentswho say they developed health problems related to dioxin, which has spread for miles in the river and prompted fish consumption warnings, have sued the responsible parties of the San Jacinto Waste Pits. Barrett and others also sued French Limited for health and environmental damages, but accepted settlements in the 1970s.

Texas state health authorities found elevated rates of different types of cancer in studies of neighborhoods near the San Jacinto River in 2014 and 2015. The 2014 study, which focused specifically on census tracts around the French Limited site, found elevated rates of lung cancer, but did not link the cancer to toxic waste.

While proving that toxic wastes caused instances of cancer is difficult, if not impossible, Barrett has long wondered whether there’s a connection between cancer deaths and the Superfund contaminants.

He and other longtime residents grew up drinking from shallow wells they fear were contaminated by groundwater plumes under what became the Superfund site. Barrett’s mother died of lung cancer at 74, his father died of pancreatic cancer at 72, and three of his four grandparents died of cancer as well.

The cemetery where many of Fred Barrett's relatives are buried.
The cemetery where many of Fred Barrett's relatives are buried.Spike Johnson

Asked about hurricane preparedness at Superfund sites, James Hewitt, an EPA spokesman, said in a statement that the agency “effectively manages risks to human health and the environment, consistent with the Agency’s mission” at all Superfund sites.

Activists say climate change makes many site ‘caps’ obsolete

The dioxins that leaked from the San Jacinto Waste Pits show why the Obama administration wanted climate-related threats built into remediation plans.

At numerous other Superfund sites across the country, EPA officials have approved caps — often thin layers of clay, earth or sand — to contain highly toxic wastes. And at site after site, environmental activists and attorneys have argued that intensifying hurricanes, storm surges and flooding make those caps inadequate. They often favor actual removal of the waste, which is far more costly.

“EPA’s common practice of consolidating waste and leaving it in place in landfills or under engineered caps may no longer be protective of human health and the environment if climate changes result in frequent, massive flooding in the Gulf Coast areas,” the 2014 Superfund report by the EPA’s Region 6 office says.

The LCP Chemical Superfund site on 813 low-lying acres of mostly marsh in Brunswick, Georgia, is a case in point.

As one of the sites subject to triple threats from climate change — in the 100-year flood plain, susceptible to hurricanes and regularly flooded — LCP Chemical is extremely vulnerable to inundation by seawater, which hastens the release of toxic mercury and PCBs into the marsh and then into creeks and rivers that crisscross the site.

The site is also one of 74 where the EPA admits that potentially harmful toxins remain uncontrolled, even though LCP Chemical has been in the national cleanup program since 1996.

The mercury and PCBs leaking from the site taint the fish and shellfish consumed by residents, putting them at risk for cancer and liver and kidney damage, according to a federal health assessment of the site.

The LCP Chemical Superfund site in Brunswick, Ga., is mostly marsh.
The LCP Chemical Superfund site in Brunswick, Ga., is mostly marsh.Google Earth

A key 2018 plan for the site makes no reference to climate change, an omission that worries Rachael Thompson, executive director of the Glynn Environmental Coalition, an environmental organization in Glynn County, Georgia, home to four Superfund sites.

“You won’t see anything about climate change because they don’t talk about it,” she said. “We have a situation where the regulators are not as hard as they should be in requiring planning based on the facts and the science of climate change.”

Rob Pope, one of two EPA remedial project managers at the LCP Chemical site, acknowledged that climate-related threats such as hurricanes and storm surge are a concern when cleanup and remediation plans are being written. But he said identifying future climate threats — as called for in the 2014 climate adaptation plans — is no longer an explicit part of long-term planning.

The EPA’s 2015 remediation plan for much of the marsh included placing a 6-inch covering of sand — called a thin layer — over the toxic sediment left after dredging. The EPA concluded such a remedy was “generally accepted as reliable containment for contaminated sediment.”

Bill Sapp, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit organization opposed to the EPA’s capping plan, said the strategy is inadequate, especially when a Glynn County Hazard Mitigation Plan estimated storm surge generated by hurricanes could be from 4 to 18 feet, in addition to the twice daily scouring of 9-foot tides.

“It seems questionable how a 6-inch sediment cap could withstand such an onslaught of water,” he said.

Unanswered questions and long delays surround Superfund sites

In Barrett, Texas, Fred Barrett and other residents have contacted an environmental lawyer to ask the EPA for information about a wall that was supposed to prevent the flow of wastewater off the French Limited Superfund site, given all the recent flooding.

The original 1993 cleanup plan for French Limited called for removing toxins and restoring the groundwater to drinking water standards. But the plan was amended in 2014, when some of the 90-plus companies that had admitted polluting the water argued that restoring groundwater to that standard was no longer feasible, and the EPA agreed to allow the toxins to remain in place and be treated via “natural attenuation.” Fred Barrett says that’s essentially letting Mother Nature take care of the mess.

The 2014 modification, approved by the EPA as an amendment to a federal court consent decree, also called for improvements to the wall to better contain wastewater at the site.

But Barrett and his neighbors say they haven’t been able to obtain any information from the EPA about the status of the wall. Asked about its plans for the site, EPA said it would closely monitor the wells and work to mitigate any leakage of contaminants.

Lisa Gossett, an engineer and environmental attorney who serves as a board member of the Texas Health and Environmental Alliance, said further remediation at French Limited is necessary. The EPA’s previous conclusions about the flow of contaminated groundwater from French Limited and other old sites, she said, should be re-evaluated given the increases in rainfall and intensity of recent storms.

San Jacinto River Waste Pits
Workers at the San Jacinto Waste Pits in Channelview, Texas, on Sept. 13, 2017.David J. Phillip / AP

At the San Jacinto Waste Pits, in contrast, the EPA acknowledged the urgency of a cleanup. In early September 2017, shortly after Hurricane Harvey, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt visited the site and announced that dioxin would be finally removed. A month later, the EPA approved a plan, estimated at $155 million, to remove about 212,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated waste.

Vince Ryan, the attorney for Harris County, which includes Houston and the waste pits site, said after Pruitt’s visit that the leak of dioxin was “frightening proof” that the EPA needed to move quickly and clean the site up before another major hurricane hits.

Three years later, the project remains mired in delays, and removal has not yet begun.