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Conservation In Mind – New risks at Superfund sites

By Frances Lamberts

For disposal of toxic chemicals and their dangerous effects on water and public health, area citizens around Embreeville, in 1980, brought suit against the owner company of the Bumpass Cove landfill. Following five years of the citizens’ efforts toward having the landfill properly surveyed, closed and monitored, Bumpass Cove became an official Superfund site in 1984.

Recent communication and a study by two scientists affiliated with the Union of Concerned Scientists highlight the status of the federal Superfund program today, and new danger to communities around or near the sites.

An Obama era executive order had directed that new federal infrastructure designs – and Superfund sites – incorporate climate change into planning for future flood risks. This had followed the release of benzene, a cancer-causing agent, in Hurricane Irene’s flooding of such a site in New Jersey, and the prospect of increasing risk to the sites from more frequent and severe storms and flooding, under the changing climate.

Yet less than two weeks before Hurricane Harvey caused extreme flooding in Texas, the Trump administration rescinded this directive, which had been intended to make infrastructure more resilient to future flooding events. Harvey’s floodwaters compromised the containment barrier at a Houston Superfund site, potentially exposing nearby communities to the highly toxic chemical compounds contained there.

As the scientists noted, the Government Accountability Office had presented the Trump administration with an analysis showing that 60 percent of national Superfund sites are at risk of harmful climate change impacts, but the report and recommendations were ignored.

Titled “Toxic Relationship – Extreme Coastal Flooding and Superfund Sites” the UCS study, emphasizing their contamination with some of the most hazardous chemicals known to mankind, documents almost 2,000 Superfund sites located within 25 miles of the East or Gulf coast. They and millions of residents and homeowners near them are at risk of severe flooding within the next 20 years, even under the lowest rates of sea level rise.

At a visit to Unicoi Ms. Bradshaw, who is campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Lamar Alexander, told of her water-pollution concerns and conservation activism being sparked in teenage years by health issues in her community from problems at a Superfund site. For the Bumpass Cove residents, their problems and health-impact fears related mainly to groundwater infiltration and surface-water runoff during rains. For the many Superfund sites across the country, especially in coastal areas and along major river routes, the government now should reinstate and work to strengthen the needed protections against climate change-induced flooding.