On Tuesday (November 18), a congressional watchdog agency announced that nearly 1,000 Superfund sites, the nation’s most contaminated hazardous waste locations, face increased climate threats and require dedicated government intervention.
In a new report, “EPA Should Take Additional Actions to Manage Risks from Climate Change,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that at least 945 toxic waste sites are in danger of rising seas, more intense inland flooding, forest fires and other environmental disasters. This number represents six out of 10 Superfund sites overseen by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The greatest threat facing the sites is flooding, according to the report. Nearly 800 sites are at risk due to increased rainfall caused by global warming. More than 200 are at high risk for wildfires and at least 187 are vulnerable to storm surges caused by Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, according to The Washington Post.
“We found that EPA has taken some actions to manage risks at these sites,” reads the report. “However, we recommend it provide direction on integrating climate information into site-level decision making to ensure long-term protection of human health and the environment.”
In 2014, under President Barack Obama, the EPA crafted a plan to address climate change that included action items for the Superfund program. But the Trump administration has reversed a number of Obama’s environmental policies that targeted climate change. Regarding Superfund sites, The Post reports, “Trump administration officials formally rejected a recommendation to clarify how preparing toxic sites to withstand the impacts of climate change is part of the EPA’s mission.” It continues:
After the release of the report, Senate Democrats sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler demanding an explanation for agency leaders’ “failure to embrace addressing climate change as a strategic objective.”
“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,” the lawmakers told Wheeler.
As previous studies have shown, a disproportionate number of people of color live near these toxic sites. According to the EPA, 19 percent of all Black Americans and 23 percent of all Latinx people lived within three miles of a Superfund site in 2016.
“All Americans deserve timely action on Superfund site cleanups in their communities—not delays,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated last month. “We will continue to advance or accelerate Superfund cleanups across the country by addressing issues that cause site-specific delays.”
In contrast, Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, told the Post, “The report raises critical issues that are not being addressed. It’s a huge shortcoming not to take climate change into consideration.”