Fifteen Va. Superfund sites threatened by climate change, watchdog agency says

By: - November 20, 2019 12:02 am

The Atlantic Wood Industries Superfund site is approximately 50 acres of land on the industrialized waterfront of Portsmouth and over 30 acres of contaminated sediments in the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. It is listed at risk to climate change in a new federal report. (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality)

WASHINGTON — Fifteen of the most contaminated sites in Virginia are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a new report from a government watchdog agency.

The Government Accountability Office, 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 affect some of the most dangerous hazardous waste sites around the country. The agency looked at 1,336 “active” sites on U.S. EPA’s National Priorities List and 421 “deleted” 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.

In Virginia, 15 of the 24 active and deleted sites surveyed and analyzed by GAO are in areas deemed vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surge or flooding.

Fifteen of the most contaminated sites in Virginia are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Those include the former Peck Iron and Metal facility in Portsmouth, which processed and stored scrap metal from military bases and other government agencies. That site is at risk from sea level rise, storm surge and flooding, the report found.

The C & R Battery Co., Inc., site near the James River in Chesterfield County was contaminated as the company recovered lead and lead oxide from old car and truck batteries. That site is also vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surge and flooding. In 2018, the EPA concluded that the clean-up to-date “is protective in the short term because, as result of the cleanup, no one is currently exposed to contamination that could pose an unacceptable risk. However, land use restrictions are necessary to ensure the remedy remains protective of human health and the environment over the long term.”

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.

According to GAO, EPA’s strategic plan from 2018 to 2022 “does not include goals and objectives related to climate change or discuss strategies for addressing the impacts of climate change effects.” EPA officials interviewed by GAO said that the agency doesn’t always include climate change when it’s assessing risks at Superfund sites.

Under the Trump administration, the EPA has rolled back many of the Obama administration’s policies to address climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Trump EPA told GAO it believes the Superfund program adequately considers the risks of severe weather events.

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.

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.