Does Climate Change Increase Risks for New Jersey’s Superfund Sites?

Many NJ cleanup locations seen vulnerable to fires, floods, storm-surge and sea-level rise
Credit: Dan Jeffrey from Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Crown Vantage Landfill Superfund site in Alexandria Township

Many of New Jersey’s Superfund sites are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which threatens to contaminate surrounding areas with the hazardous materials the sites are designed to contain if they are damaged by floods, fires or storms, according to a report from the federal Government Accountability Office.

The congressional watchdog agency named 141 New Jersey sites in a national survey of more than 1,500 that have been or are still subject to environmental cleanup, and said that many of the Garden State locations could be damaged by floods or fires that are caused by climate change.

The survey included the Kin-Buc Landfill in Edison Township, Middlesex County which lost its state permits as a municipal and industrial waste facility in the 1970s after being found to have leaked PCBs into a nearby creek and discharged millions of gallons of oil and other wastes.

Fires, hurricanes, floods

Now, the Kin-Buc site is seen to have a high potential for wildfires, vulnerability to hurricanes at even their lowest intensity, the highest exposure to floods and the potential to be inundated by only one foot of sea-level rise, far less than is forecast for the Jersey Shore by the end of the century.

Likewise, the Federal Creosote site next to the Raritan River in Manville, Somerset County, was deemed by the GAO to be susceptible to wildfires and once-in-a-century flooding. The conclusion comes after some 20 years of environmental remediation that removed thousands of tons of contaminated soil and capped areas found to contain carcinogenic material left by wood treatment that took place there for about 45 years until the mid-1950s.

And the Crown Vantage Landfill beside the Delaware River in Alexandria Township, Hunterdon County was deemed by the GAO to be vulnerable to a once-in-a-century flood almost 30 years after New Jersey environmental officials began investigating its discharges of contaminants from a nearby paper mill. The site is now fenced off and monitored to make sure it is not disturbed, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nationally, some 60% of Superfund sites are vulnerable to climate change, the agency said, basing its conclusions on climate and other data from four federal agencies. It said the sites “are located in areas that may be impacted by selected climate-change effects.”

NJ at higher risk

New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel said the report is of particular concern in New Jersey because of its unusual vulnerability to the effects of climate change, including sea-level rise.

“When these sites flood, they will wash all kinds of toxic chemicals into streams, rivers and even homes,” he said.

Where contaminated material has been capped rather than removed, flooding will cause the caps to fail, allowing the contaminants to enter groundwater, Tittel said.

The GAO analyzed Superfund sites on the National Priority List. (New Jersey has the highest number of any state, according to EPA data.) About 90% of the so-called NPL sites are not federal, which means they are typically owned by private businesses or municipal or state governments. Cleanups at those sites, however, are conducted or overseen by the EPA.

The agency was asked by Congress to look at whether the contaminated sites could be exposed to flooding, sea-level rise, wildfires and storm surge, and whether the EPA, which oversees the sites’ cleanup, has been doing enough to plan for climate-related effects in those locations.

Noting that the NPL program has recorded more than 500 contaminants including arsenic and lead, the GAO cited the Fourth National Climate Assessment of 2018 in predicting that climate change could make natural disasters more frequent or intense and increase the risk of damage to the sites.

The GAO recommended that the EPA do more to integrate climate change into its assessment and risk-response of Superfund sites and clarify how its actions at the sites help to meet its goals of protecting human health and the environment.

EPA rejects recommendations

But the EPA rejected three of the GAO’s four recommendations, and issued a statement saying its current processes are enough to ensure the sites’ safety.

“The EPA strongly believes the Superfund program’s existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events, that may increase in intensity, duration, or frequency, are woven into risk response decisions at nonfederal NPL sites,” said EPA assistant administrator Peter Wright.

The agency said it is already incorporating climate change into its management of the sites, “as a standard practice in cleanup projects.”

The EPA’s arguments were rejected by 11 U.S. Senate Democrats including New Jersey’s Cory Booker and Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. They attacked the EPA for rejecting much of the GAO report, and asked to see evidence of the agency’s pursuit of climate-related policy.

“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 said in a letter to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler.

They said the GAO’s report supports the conclusion that the EPA’s “shortcomings” in managing risks from climate change have largely resulted from the agency’s leadership under the Trump administration, which has said it plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord to curb carbon emissions.

The lawmakers demanded documents showing that climate events like hurricanes and storm surges are included in EPA’s policies.

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