Watchdog agency: 92 percent of FL Superfund sites at risk from climate change

Contaminated Superfund sites in Florida are vulnerable to climate change. Credit: GAO analysis based on federal agency data.

WASHINGTON — Dozens of the most contaminated sites in Florida are in areas that could be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a new report from a government watchdog agency. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent agency that works for the U.S. Congress, assessed how impacts of climate change — including flooding, storm surge, wildfires and sea level rise — might impact some of the most dangerous hazardous waste sites around the country.

But according to GAO, the Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump has no strategic plan for 2018-22 that includes any “goals and objectives related to climate change or discuss strategies for addressing the impacts of climate change effects.”

The GAO looked at 1,336 “active” sites on U.S. EPA’s National Priorities List and 421 sites where EPA had determined no further cleanup was needed. 

Nationwide, about 60% of those sites are located in places that might be impacted by the effects of climate change, the report found. GAO looked only at non-federal sites, which means the agency excluded the roughly 10% of Superfund sites owned or operated by the federal government. 

That percentage is even higher in Florida, where 92% of the sites surveyed analyzed by GAO are in areas deemed vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surge, flooding or wildfires. The agency looked at 74 active and deleted sites in the state; 68 of those were deemed to be at risk for at least one of those threats. 

The Florida Steel Corp. site in Indiantown — where melting scrap metal generated dangerous dust — is in an area that might be impacted by wildfires, GAO found. The site of the Stauffer Chemical Co. in Tampa, where pesticides and herbicides were manufactured, is vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surge and flooding. 

GAO warned in its report that the impacts of climate change could pose risks to public health by spreading pollution from such sites. The agency pointed to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when an unprecedented amount of rainfall dumped on Houston, damaging Superfund sites and releasing toxic materials. 

EPA officials interviewed by GAO said the agency doesn’t always include climate change when it’s assessing risks at Superfund sites. 

Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Monday expressing concern over GAO’s findings and over EPA’s response. 

“We believe that EPA’s refusal to implement GAO’s recommendations could result in real harm to human health and the environment as the effects of climate change become more frequent and intense,” the lawmakers wrote. They asked EPA to answer a series of questions by next month about how it plans to address the risks climate change poses to Superfund sites.