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Environment & Energy Report

Climate Change Impacts Spur EPA to Improve Superfund Maps

Nov. 18, 2019, 7:16 PM

The EPA will map the boundaries of the nation’s most toxic sites in response to a government watchdog’s concerns about climate change impacts.

About 60% of the 1,571 Superfund sites are in areas that may be hit by flooding, storm surge, wildfires, or sea level rise, the Government Accountability Office wrote in a report released Nov. 18. Many are in the Northeast, and about half of the sites are likely to be affected by flooding.

About 7% of the sites, many located along the Gulf of Mexico, may be affected by sea level rise, the watchdog found.

Severe weather and its consequences, such as flooding, fires, and power outages, could compromise Superfund sites’ hazardous waste containment measures, potentially resulting in spills, explosions or other chemical releases that can affect public health and the environment, the GAO said.

Not knowing where those sites’ boundaries lie can complicate the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to identify which of them may be affected by severe weather, wildfires and sea level rise, it said.

The agency plans to have a preliminary set of site boundaries for all Superfund sites by the end of fiscal 2021, EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management, Peter C. Wright, wrote to the GAO Oct. 1.

Lacks Consistent Data

The EPA lacks consistent data detailing the boundaries of Superfund sites, the GAO’s report said. The watchdog calculated the number of sites potentially affected by climate change by adding a 0.2-mile radius around each site’s geographic coordinates, but Superfund sites may be many miles wide.

“Information on the boundaries of [Superfund] sites has not been a focus at a national level and is not yet subject to quality standards,” the report said. Agency officials told the GAO that Superfund site boundaries reflect each site’s cleanup manager’s “professional judgment,” and each manager may determine and record those boundaries differently.

The Superfund program already adequately ensures that severe weather is part of each site’s risk assessment, according to the EPA.

Superfund sites hit by hurricanes in 2017 generally held up in the face of tropical-force winds and flooding, the EPA said in a report earlier this year.

Reported damage was “minor,” the EPA said, and was limited to 16 sites. That damage ranged from erosion of a reinforced cap over contaminated waste at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site near Houston, to power outages that stopped a groundwater treatment system at the Tutu Wellfield site in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com