Hurricane Harvey flooded more than a dozen Superfund toxic waste sites when it devastated the Texas coast in late August. An EPA report predicted the possibility of climate-related problems at toxic waste sites like those in Texas, but the page detailing the report on the agency’s website was made inactive months before the storm.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Implementation Plan warned that those in charge of cleaning up Superfund sites should explicitly plan for more rain, bigger floods and “increased intensity of hurricanes.” Based on earlier EPA climate change research, the report authors recommended that the agency change how it protects people from toxic chemical releases as sea levels rise and storms get more severe.
The report was removed from the EPA website when President Trump took office in January — it last appeared on the site the day before his inauguration.
“We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt,” the page now reads, with a link to an archived version of the page containing the report.
Such preparedness reports are reference documents for those who draft specific cleanup plans for hazardous waste sites.
Take, for example, two sites that were flooded during Harvey and don’t yet have finalized cleanup agreements — the EPA’s handling of the climate-preparedness document could have far-reaching implications for how these agreements are written and how contaminated sited are handled.
A toxic Texas bayou
Patrick Bayou is one such Superfund site, flooded in the midst of finalizing a cleanup plan. It’s in Deer Park, Texas, about 15 miles from downtown Houston, sandwiched between the Houston Ship Channel and a sprawling complex of petrochemical facilities, and separated from homes by a highway. The bayou is polluted with dangerous heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, selenium and zinc, as well as pesticides and petrochemicals, according to EPA testing.
The severity of the hazards posed by Patrick Bayou landed it on the EPA’s National Priorities List in 2002. It often takes a decade or more for the government to reach an agreement with those responsible for cleaning up a toxic waste site, meaning responsibility for details can stretch across multiple presidential administrations.
In March of this year, the EPA published a final feasibility report on potential cleanup methods for Patrick Bayou.
The 4,411-page document discusses, in extreme detail, cleanup options and risks associated with Patrick Bayou — which is susceptible to flooding because of its location along the Ship Channel. It does not mention the EPA’s 2014 report on climate change or its recommendations concerning flood risk assessment, and the words “climate change” do not appear. In sections about flood risk, the analysis does not acknowledge research suggesting that models predicting the severity and frequency of flooding are increasingly unreliable as a result of climate change.
The EPA announced on Sept. 15 that it had found no evidence of contamination at Patrick Bayou beyond what was already present before Harvey, and that the process of reaching a cleanup agreement for the site would continue.
Rising waters and hazardous waste pits
The language in the Patrick Bayou report is in stark contrast with a preliminary cleanup plan published less than a year earlier for the San Jacinto Waste Pits Superfund site about 5 miles away, sticking out into the San Jacinto River.
That much shorter document, released in September 2016 during the Obama administration, references climate change twice and notes that “future flooding may be even more intense” — which could mean some cleanup methods would be more effective than others.
The San Jacinto Waste Pits were inundated during the floods, as NPR has reported. This week, the EPA announced the site had been damaged, exposing toxic waste, and that the agency was directing the companies responsible for the cleanup to fix the temporary protective cap over the pits.
The long-term plan is not yet final, and it’s unclear whether the climate-related strategies discussed in the preliminary document will make it into a final cleanup agreement under a new administration.
“I think what’s disturbing is that language matters,” says Ilan Levin, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project in Austin, an environmental watchdog group run in part by former EPA employees. “We’re in the early stages, but just seeing that the language has changed in these agreements means that [the current EPA] is not accepting the risks, and they’re kind of burying their heads in the sand,” he says.
After Harvey struck, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt traveled to Houston and visited the waste pits and other Superfund sites. Pruitt, who has questioned the basic facts of climate change, has said that one of his priorities at the agency is to expedite cleanups at Superfund sites.
“The previous administration not only didn’t make this a priority — but took years and years just to make decisions about cleaning up these sites,” EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman wrote in an email to NPR earlier this week. “The delays that have plagued individual cleanups aren’t helping anyone, and proceeding with business as usual is not an option.”
She did not comment on the absence of the 2014 climate report from the current EPA website.
Nationwide, some communities near toxic waste sites feel that the cleanup progress has been slow or inadequate, and the Superfund program has been plagued with budget shortfalls for years.
A week after Harvey, Scott Jones of the Galveston Bay Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, told NPR that while he felt the EPA was generally doing a good job developing a cleanup plan for the San Jacinto Waste Pits, he wished the process would move more quickly. His organization has been calling for a cleanup plan for the waste pits for years.
Levin cautions that, in many cases, “speeding up these cleanups is not a good idea. I think expediting cleanups will just allow people to take shortcuts.”
“The fact is the last administration was proactively considering the additional risks that climate change poses to some of these toxic dump sites,” Levin says. “That’s a step in the right direction.”