During This Intense Hurricane Season: Some Reports and Information on Storms, Chemicals and Public Safety
By Kara Cook-Schultz, U.S. PIRG
Hurricane Harvey was a natural disaster, and a devastating one at that. During and after the hurricane, we learned anew that it’s not only the initial storm that threatens life and limb, but also chemical facilities that are hit.
For example, Houston has Superfund sites that were flooded, which created a toxic soup in certain areas — a major public health concern. These sites are being cleaned up too slowly. The culprit? Part of the problem is that the federal Superfund polluter pays fee was eliminated roughly 20 years ago. In 2010, the EPA said that reinstating this fee would speed up the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. Harvey is a reminder that this fee should be renewed. It is also a reminder that we cannot cut the current EPA budget for Superfund sites.
Second, first responders didn’t always know what they were facing when tackling fires or explosions, such as the one at a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas. The Trump administration’s EPA has delayed a rules that would give first responders the information they need. Unfortunately, first responders in Crosby report that they were not given adequate notice about the dangers they faced from the chemical plant, and 18 officers visited the hospital with injuries sustained from the plant’s expulsions. The chemical fire sent the message that the EPA should move forward with the Risk Management Plan rule.
As Irma bears down on Florida, we hope for the best outcome for the people of Florida. We also want the state to prepare for the worst. In that spirit, here is a map of hazardous sites in the state.
Finally, here are a handful of reports we’ve produced on the topic. As we go about the recovery effort and consider ways to avoid these dangers in the future, these reports (some of which aren’t new), should prove useful.
Toxic Chemicals: Across the United States, thousands of industrial facilities use and store hazardous chemicals in large quantities that pose major risks to their neighbors. Our 2010 report, Chemical Insecurity, looks at chemical manufacturing and storage plants that pose major risks to surrounding populations in the event of disaster. Our 2007 report, Toxic Pollution and Health, explores the different types of toxic chemicals and their effects on our health. In extreme weather, there is a higher risk of toxic chemicals spilling and spreading into the air and water, like we saw with Hurricane Harvey. And this year, we wrote several articles exposing the failures of chemical security in Texas: Harvey’s Toxic Aftermath was Preventable; Obama-Era Regulations Could Have Averted Danger from Crosby, Texas Explosions.
Superfund Sites: Since 1980, the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program has worked to protect one in four Americans who live within four miles of the nation’s most polluted toxic waste sites. Our report from 2005, Empty Pockets: Facing Hurricane Katrina’s Cleanup with a Bankrupt Superfund, explores how Superfund sites are anticipated to spill and pollute in certain extreme weather events. When Superfund sites are hit by extreme weather, toxic spills can be a big problem for people’s health, and we are concerned that toxins will be exposed in our environment. As we saw from Hurricane Katrina, the hurricane forces and floodwaters that hit the heavily industrialized Gulf Coast in August 2005, created a stew of chemicals, sewage, oil, and pesticides that dispersed and settled widely.
Hazardous waste sites: Additionally, there are many areas of the country where hazardous waste currently sits exposed to rising floodwaters, storms, and other natural disasters. Petrochemical sites, oil spills, and mining waste are all part of our report The Truth About Toxic Waste Cleanups.
We also monitor government regulation of these areas and map areas of concern, such as this map of Florida hazardous waste, phosphate mining, and industrial waste sites: Mapping Out Toxic Sites That Could Be In Hurricane Irma’s Path.
Chemical Security: Accidents at chemical and industrial facilities are common. To address the public health threats created by toxic waste sites, Congress established the nation’s premier toxic cleanup program, the Superfund, in 1980. This does not however solve the problem of chemical security. Congress designed a funding structure for Superfund that placed the financial burden of cleaning up toxic contamination on the polluters by collecting three established fees from polluting industries.
With extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey, there were 13 Superfund sites that were flooded and potentially damaged. We found that there is some evidence that the danger from these sites could have been mitigated and limited earlier if the EPA and the Superfund program were better funded. Two changes are needed for the future: 1) “Polluter pays,” should be restored as a funding policy for Superfund; 2) the EPA needs to prioritize a faster response time for testing air and water after a disaster.
Nuclear Waste during natural disasters: The danger of nuclear waste is too close to home. According to our 2012 Nuclear Power Plants report, Too Close to Home Nuclear Power and the Threat to Drinking Water,
the drinking water for 49 million Americans could be at risk of radioactive contamination from a leak or accident at a local nuclear power plant. Combining that with extreme weather, such as a hurricane, can lead to airborne radioactive release, radioactive elements can travel significant distances before coming to land. Areas near the plant are likely to receive the heaviest concentrations. Hurricanes, which tend to lead to heavy rain, can increase the risk that airborne radioactive releases pose to drinking water supplies.