Everyone in Texas should pay attention to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office’s criticism of the Environmental Protection Agency for downplaying how climate change could cause massive flooding that would spell disaster for people living near Superfund sites.
That’s not a theory. It happened two years ago in Texas when torrential rains from Hurricane Harvey flooded or damaged 13 Superfund sites. “At one site on the San Jacinto River in Texas, floodwater eroded part of the structure containing such substances, including dioxins, which are highly toxic and can cause cancer and liver and nerve damage,” said the GAO report.
Harvey also flooded the old U.S. Oil Recovery site in Pasadena, which, before it closed in 2010, was a waste processing plant for the petroleum industry. Pollution at the plant was so bad that a Harris County grand jury later indicted its owner, Klaus Genssler, for improperly storing and releasing benzene, a known carcinogen. Genssler apparently fled the country and was never tried.
The first Superfund sites were designated by the EPA in 1980 as places where hazardous waste had been dumped, left out in the open or otherwise improperly managed. The sites’ owners are required to clean them up or reimburse the EPA for doing the job.
That’s an enormous task, given the more than 1,300 Superfund sites nationally that remain polluted. The GAO, which reports to Congress, said 783 of those contaminated properties are at greater risk of flooding due to climate change and that another 187 are vulnerable to storm surge from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. Harvey was a category 4 when it made landfall in Texas and Louisiana.
The GAO accused the EPA, now headed by former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, of underestimating what global warming can do. Wheeler has said he believes in climate change, and that human behavior plays a role, but he says the potential consequences have been overblown. He said the lack of drinking water worldwide is a greater problem.
Responding to the GAO report, EPA assistant administrator Peter Wright said the agency’s risk assessments adequately address any future “increase in intensity, duration, or frequency” of severe weather events. But an assessment won’t protect the public when a flooded Superfund site begins to spill toxins into a nearby neighborhood.
The GAO report said there are no strategies in the EPA’s five-year strategic plan to handle the risks that may occur in that type of situation. “We know extreme weather is the new normal for Texas,” Environment Texas executive director Luke Metzger told the editorial board. “It is reckless and grossly irresponsible for the EPA to not plan for global warming.”
The Center for Biological Diversity released an analysis after Harvey that said most of the Superfund sites in Texas flooded by the storm were in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, or both. The center called that result “horribly unjust,” noting many of those same communities already bear an unfair pollution burden. It’s clear that climate change “will magnify public health disparities,” the center said.
That’s certainly true, but when toxic chemicals get into our water and air, no one should feel safe. Speaking federal agency to federal agency, the GAO is urging the EPA to fully accept the threat posed by global warming and do more to protect the public from toxic spills likely to result from flooding and storm surge. After all, that’s the EPA’s job.
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