WASHINGTON (July 28, 2020)—Hundreds of hazardous Superfund sites across the country are at high risk of flooding as sea levels rise in the coming decades, putting nearby communities in potential danger, according to an analysis based on research that was discontinued by the Trump administration in 2017 but released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The study, “A Toxic Relationship: Extreme Coastal Flooding and Superfund Sites,” was authored by UCS research scientist Jacob Carter, who began the analysis in 2015 while working as a scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. President Barack Obama authorized the research through Executive Order 13690, which aimed to understand how climate change was exacerbating flooding risks.
Carter left the EPA in 2017 when it became clear that the Trump administration would no longer pursue climate change-focused research. In fact, the White House revoked Executive Order 13690 in August of 2017—just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters compromised a major Superfund site in Houston, Texas.
The new analysis, based on Carter’s work at the EPA, shows that more than 800 Superfund sites near the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are at risk of flooding in the next 20 years, even with low rates of sea level rise. By 2100, if carbon emissions continue on their current trajectory triggering high rates of sea level rise, more than 1,000 sites will be at flooding risk.
Millions of people live near those sites, which are contaminated with chemicals that pose severe danger to human health—and the people living near those sites are disproportionately people of color. Environmental justice advocates have long fought to elevate these concerns and get them addressed—a major driving force for the creation of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, which was dismantled under the Trump Administration. In fact, more than 17 million people of color live within five miles of a Superfund site facing flooding risk. Flooding can increase the chances that these dangerous chemicals will contaminate nearby land and water, putting communities at risk of adverse health effects.
“Dismantling this research is in keeping with the administration’s wholesale roll back of pollution oversight and public health protections,” said Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist for the Climate and Energy Program at UCS. “Their actions increase the risk that environmental justice communities are facing from climate change and hazardous pollutants.”
“If I’d been able to carry out this work at the EPA, it would have allowed Superfund site project managers to prepare for the potential flooding to come,” said Carter. “Instead, the new administration’s EPA leadership came in with the clear intention to stop considering climate change, and it became clear to me that my work—which obviously focused on climate change—could easily be terminated. For purely political reasons, the agency sidelined work that was vital to its mission.”
Demands for stronger protections from communities near hazardous facilities have long been ignored by public officials, and cleanup efforts are chronically underfunded or delayed, especially in underserved communities. The risks associated with Superfund sites have only increased under the Trump administration.. It has cut both science and community input out of the policymaking process, ignored and underfunded environmental justice efforts, and drastically cut funding support to local groups trying to tackle the effects of environmental injustice.
“The failure to incorporate research on the risks that climate change-driven flooding poses to superfund sites and neighboring communities is a part of a dangerous pattern,” said Carter. “This is information communities and environmental justice advocates really need to keep themselves safe. I’m glad we were finally able to make it public—but this is work that the federal government should be doing. Scientists should be able to carry out this work without fear of political pressure. We have to be able to protect vulnerable communities from harm, and you can’t solve a problem if you refuse to even look at the evidence. The EPA can’t ignore its responsibility to people living near Superfund sites.”
UCS has tracked nearly 150 attacks on science across the administration, and a 2018 UCS survey of federal scientists at 16 different agencies, including the EPA, showed serious concerns among scientists that political interference prevented them from doing their work.