THE SUPERFUND program was created in 1980 when the federal government recognized the dangers presented to human health and the environment by chemical and other hazardous waste sites, and decided to clean them up. Administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the program has always been extremely complex and expensive. It is also absolutely necessary.
Many of the tens of thousands of sites identified over the past 40 years have been cleaned up or otherwise safely contained. More than 1,300 remain on the National Priority List.
A new report released by the Government Accountability Office says roughly 60 percent of active Superfund sites across the country could be breached due to the potential impacts of climate change. Flooding, either from rising sea levels or heavy rain from intensified hurricanes or other storms, is the primary threat.
Of the approximately 800 sites across the country considered at-risk, 15 are in Virginia—including one nearby in Spotsylvania County. For about 50 years, from the 1930s to the 1980s, L.A. Clarke & Son operated a wood preservative (creosoting) site not far from Massaponax Creek in Spotsylvania. Most of that time, the company leased the site from the RF&P railroad. It changed hands a few times until operations ceased in 1988. It has been on the National Priority List since 1986.
Creosote extends the life of railroad ties, telephone poles and other wood exposed to the elements. It is one of the key toxic materials at Superfund sites that must be cleaned up because of the contamination threat to groundwater.
When remediation plans were established for many sites where work is continuing, the potential impacts of climate change were not considered. Sites that have been deleted from the National Priority List, however, are generally considered safe, though monitoring may continue.
Based on the GAO’s findings, the EPA is ill prepared to deal with the many sites vulnerable to floods, wildfires and other climate-related disasters. Populated areas threatened by these health risks could widen if the pollution is allowed to spread.
A good example, the GAO points out, is the unprecedented amount of rainfall from Hurricane Harvey that inundated Houston in 2017, releasing toxic contamination from damaged Superfund sites.
The GAO found that the EPA does not include “goals and objectives related to climate change or discuss strategies for addressing the impacts of climate change effects” in its strategic plan for 2018 to 2022, something EPA officials acknowledge.
In a prepared statement, Peter Wright, the EPA’s assistant administrator, rejected many of the GAO’s findings: “The EPA strongly believes 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 assessments.”
It is a curious but not unexpected position given the Trump administration’s relatively hands-off approach to environmental protection. Although the increased danger to any particular site, like the one in Spotsylvania, is still hypothetical, the toxic contents are a reality.
From its inception, the Superfund program has drawn funding for remediation from the polluters themselves under the “polluter pays principle.” Until the late 1990s, companies were picking up most of the tab. But as the companies’ funds waned and some polluters proved hard to find, the taxpayers’ share increased.
In post-Great Recession years, including during the Obama administration, Superfund funding has been reduced, and now the Trump administration has sought to cut the current $1.1 billion annual Superfund budget by 30 percent. The reduction in funding delays the cleanups and limits the number of sites that can be addressed. In an interview earlier this year, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler suggested climate change wasn’t one of the agency’s top priorities. “Most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out,” Wheeler told CBS.
Based on the GAO’s Superfund findings, and the potential human cost of failing to take action, the threat ought to be taken more seriously.