With 60% of America’s toxic Superfund sites at risk from climate impacts like storm surge and flooding, wildfires and rising seas, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must urgently incorporate climate change into its risk assessments and response protocols, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) states in a report release last month.
The GAO found that 950 of the nearly 1,600 dangerously polluted Superfund sites not located on federal land (and so dependent on regional officials for restoration) were at “increased risk from flooding or storm surge,” while more than 200 sites could soon find themselves in the path of wildfires, InsideClimate News reports. With even a foot (0.3 metres) of sea level rise, the GAO found, nearly 100 Superfund sites will face inundation.
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Such a scenario is well within the realm of the possible, as “globally, sea level has risen seven to eight inches since 1900, and it is expected to rise another half-foot to 1.2 feet compared to 2000 levels by 2050,” InsideClimate notes. In U.S. Superfund country, that would place waterways, farmland, and air quality at risk.
The GAO report stressed that climate impacts will be a moving target, as a warming planet further feeds extreme weather events and corresponding wildfires, floods, and storm surges. It instructed the EPA to “start providing clear, agency-wide instructions on how its officials should incorporate climate change into Superfund site risk assessments and response decisions.”
“That would be a change for the current administration,” InsideClimate adds, citing a letter from a dozen members of Congress to EPA Administrator and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler in response to the GAO report. InsideClimate writes that 60% of EPA officials told GAO investigators that “they have not used climate change projections for flooding or rainfall in Superfund site assessments.”
Placing blame squarely on EPA’s refusal to “embrace addressing climate change as a strategic objective,” the signatories stated that “the Superfund program is not providing necessary resources and direction to regional officials that would help them assess and respond to site-specific risks due to climate change.”
In its own response to the report, the EPA expressed its “strong belief” that “the Superfund program’s existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events, that may increase in intensity, duration, or frequency, are woven into risk response assessments.”
But Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, countered that the situation could be worse than the GAO portrayed.
“All the projections are that coastal storms and inland precipitation have nowhere to go but up, and that is going to steadily increase the number of Superfund sites that are vulnerable,” he said. And since the GAO report was not exhaustive in its coverage, “there is a much larger universe of contaminated sites that could also be vulnerable.”
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