Hurricane Laura is now predicted to make landfall as a catastrophic Category 4 sometime between Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. The storm is set to hit western Louisiana and the upper portion of Texas’s coast with destructive winds over 120 mph and an expected storm surge of 15-20 feet, which the National Hurricane Center has deemed “unsurvivable.” The Washington Post reported that Hurricane Laura will strike these areas with a “ferocity that has not been seen in this region in more than a decade.” Officials are urging residents to evacuate the areas to be affected as quickly as possible.
The expected extreme storm surge also may affect the containment and continued remediation of multiple Superfund sites in these areas, many of which hold chemicals hazardous to human health. This will present a health risks to individuals who choose not to evacuate immediately, and risks to those who return after the storm has passed.
These health risks will not be felt equally across all communities. In a report published by UCS during July 2020, we found that communities of color and low-income communities would bear the brunt of the health risks from hazardous sites at-risk of future extreme flooding. Communities of color and low-income communities are already exposed to disproportionately higher levels of environmental pollution than white people or those not living in poverty. This is a long-standing issue that is intertwined with racism and white supremacy, poor zoning laws, and bad policy choices. These decisions have resulted in communities of color and low-income communities living near chemicals that we know can have lasting damage to people’s lungs, heart, nerves, and brain, and exposure to some contaminants at these sites could result in cancer or even death.
Using information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on areas that will experience extreme storm surge, we find that 49 hazardous sites could be affected by Hurricane Laura. These sites include both sites proposed and currently listed as Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A total of 9 sites lie within the predicted extreme storm surge area that are currently designated by the EPA as official Superfund sites currently listed on the National Priority List.
Many of the Superfund sites that could be affected by Hurricane Laura were contaminated by waste generated by the oil-industry. These sites typically held diesel, coal tar, creosote, crude oil, gasoline, or asphalt in their history, and hazardous wastes were generated from the handling of such materials. Below are some Superfund sites that could be affected by Hurricane Laura, the hazardous chemicals they contain, and the health risks of being exposed to these contaminants.
EVR-WOOD TREATING/EVANGELINE REFINING COMPANY
This site was used as both an oil refinery and a creosote and wood preserving facility and is located in an area close to Jennings, LA. Removal of contaminants was conducted at the site in 2018. Remedial action has yet to begin; however, a remedial investigation was started by the EPA and is expected to be finished toward the end of the year.
A report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted in 2013 found several contaminants that could pose human health risks at the site. Some of the contaminants include heavy metals such as arsenic, manganese, iron, thallium, and chromium. The site also was contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (or PAHs). The potential health risks as identified in the ATSDR report include irritated lungs, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, cancer, decreased production of red/white blood cells, cancer, and death.
SBA SHIPYARD INC.
This site was used for construction, repair, retrofitting and cleaning of barges from 1965 to 1999. This site also is located in Jennings, LA and lies adjacent to the west bank of the Mermentau River. While a remedial investigation has started, a remedy is not expected to be put in place at the site until November of 2022.
Similar to the EVR-WOOD site, the SBA site is contaminated with PAHs, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and heavy metals. Health effects are likely to be similar to those listed above for the EVR-WOOD site – it does not appear that ATSDR has reported on the potential health effects for the SBA site. This site does list PCBs as a contaminant – ATSDR reports that exposure or ingestion of PCBs may result in skin conditions such as acne and rashes and some studies in exposed workers have shown evidence of liver damage.
US OIL RECOVERY
This site consists of two separate properties that are located in Pasadena, TX. According to the EPA, “…operations at the 400 N. Richey Street property included receipt of municipal and industrial Class I and Class II wastewater, characteristically hazardous waste, used oil and oily sludges, as well as municipal solid waste. Its affiliate, MCC Recycling (MCC), conducted associated operations at the 200 N. Richey Street property, which was a former sewage treatment plant…” The site was shut down in 2010 after it was found to be a threat to the nearby Vince Bayou. In 2013, pollution at the site was considered so bad that the owner, Klaus Genssler, was charged with five criminal felonies. He fled the US and is now considered a fugitive.
This site has previously experienced flooding when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017. The southern portion of the site, as well as three storage tanks, flooded and leached chemicals into floodwaters surrounding the site according to an investigation by the Associated Press. A group overseeing the cleanup of the site, the PRP group, called a federal emergency hotline to report the spills that affected the Vince Bayou. The site is contaminated with PAHs as well as heavy metals, exposure or ingestion could cause sore throat, lung irritation, or in some severe cases cancer or death.
The site is a small bayou that is located within the lower portion of the San Jacinto River Basin. The EPA states that “Pesticides, Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been detected in sediments in the Bayou since the early to mid-1990s.” In March, 2017 the EPA published a feasibility report on potential cleanup methods for the site, but no finalized cleanup agreement has been published to date. The 4,411-page document does not mention “climate change” nor its potential impacts to this site. This stands in stark contrast to a similar report released for a nearby Superfund site, the San Jacinto Waste Pits, published in 2016 that acknowledges the potential impacts of climate change and more extreme future floods, which may pose challenges to containment of hazardous materials.
The risks will worsen
Climate change is expected to intensify storms and floods, particularly for the East and Gulf coasts of the US. A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 60 percent of Superfund sites are at risk of being affected by climate change. We have found similar expected impacts for flooding alone on the East and Gulf Coasts in a report we published July of this year. Yet Administrator Wheeler’s response to the GAO’s recommendation for the agency to incorporate climate change information into Superfund risk response decisions was, “The EPA strongly believes the Superfund program’s existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events are woven into risk assessments.” Yet sites have already been compromised by extreme floods, and flooding is expected to increase in frequency and intensity, with evidence that some cleanup plans do not incorporate expected risks from extreme weather events. This begs the question, is the status quo working?
The Trump administration is no stranger to attacking science. Without any action to this issue during a pandemic, however, I am afraid that the administration’s disdain for science will prove deadly. Hurricane Laura is likely only the beginning.