The Atlantic hurricane season has officially began, and once again, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting an “above-normal” season, though not as active as 2020. The agency is calling for between 13 and 20 named storms with winds of 39 mph or higher, three to five of which could become major hurricanes.
Several records for number and severity of storms were broken last year, and climatologists agree that hurricane intensity and precipitation will only worsen as air and water temperatures, and sea level, continue to trend upward.
That is disconcerting news for New Jersey and its federal Superfund sites, according to a new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Environment America, nonprofits that focus on consumer protection and environmental advocacy.
The report, “A Perfect Storm,” looked at the 11 hurricanes and tropical storms that made landfall in the United States last year, along with the Superfund sites — proposed, listed and deleted — that were located within each weather system’s track. In total, there were 810 Superfund sites in the paths of those storms. Many were in New Jersey, whose total of 114 Superfund sites is the highest in the country.
NJ at ‘incredible risk’
“The title of the report would describe New Jersey perfectly,” said Jillian Gordner, who wrote the study. “It’s at incredible risk from hurricane and flooding disasters, more than most East Coast states.”
About 20 active Superfund sites sit within areas exposed to current high-tide flooding levels. As the water rises, so too will the number of sites at risk of inundation, particularly in the Delaware and Raritan River, and Newark regions.
“Storm surge is both the deadliest part of hurricanes and probably one of the biggest threats to Superfund sites, because it’s getting worse so quickly,” said Gordner.
The 2020 hurricane season’s most significant impact on a Superfund site came in early August, when then-tropical-storm Isaias, a Category 1 hurricane when it made landfall in North Carolina, rushed up the Delaware River. Throughout the Philadelphia region, the storm caused severe flooding, damaged buildings, and downed trees and powerlines.
In Darby Township, just south of Philadelphia and not far from the Delaware River, a section of the Clearview Landfill, which is part of the Darby Creek Area Superfund site, flooded.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, Clearview and neighboring Folcroft Landfill took in municipal, demolition and hospital wastes that contaminated soil, groundwater and fish tissue with thousands of tons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a highly toxic family of chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency has classified as probable human carcinogens.
The two landfills were grouped together into the Darby Creek Area site and officially listed on the National Priorities List (Superfund) in 2001, but cleanup didn’t begin in earnest until a decade later. In those areas of the site where cleanup is still ongoing, floodwater caused erosion, requiring emergency repairs.
Testing done by the EPA after Isaias showed that no site-related contaminants were transported to nearby residential properties. Also, those areas of the site where remediation and repairs had been completed were not breached by floodwaters.
The close call at Clearview Landfill, Gordner wrote in the report, “highlights the importance of cleaning up Superfund sites as quickly as possible.”
Chronic delays in cleanup are not unique to the Darby Creek site. In fact, they are the norm across the country.
No time for delay
“The longer we wait to clean up our Superfund sites means more people are at risk from toxins going into their groundwater and threatening their neighborhoods,” said Taylor McFarland, acting director of Sierra Club New Jersey. “We have the tools in place to hold polluters accountable and fund full cleanups.”
Those tools include applying to the Superfund program the “Polluter Pays Principle” — the belief that “those who produce pollution should be held responsible for managing that pollution and accountable for any harm it causes to human health and environment,” according to Gordner.
When the Superfund program was created in 1980, it included a “polluter pays” tax on petroleum and chemical companies that infused the Superfund trust with billions each year. In instances when there was no discernable polluter to be held liable for cleanup, or when the responsible party no longer existed, funds for remediation were tapped from the trust.
Congress allowed the tax to expire in 1995. Ever since, the trust has dwindled, from $2 billion in 1999 to $1.2 billion in 2019. Without the tax on polluting corporations, and because so many Superfund sites are “orphaned,” the burden of cleanup costs disproportionately falls on ordinary taxpaying Americans.
Since 2005, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th) has repeatedly introduced versions of a bill that would reinstate the tax, but it has never made it out of committee. In April, Pallone once again introduced the legislation.
Cleaning up the future
Last month, in a broader effort to address the chronic deficiencies in the Superfund program — and the growing risks posed by climate change — Pallone and other members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce introduced the Clean Future Act, a bill that addresses a suite of environmental justice issues, including Superfund remediation.
A key component of the legislation is a 10-year deadline for the cleanup of all federal Superfund sites that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
“Extreme weather can cause pollution at Superfund sites to be released into the environment, it can undermine the integrity of cleanup remedies, and it can create new Superfund sites as new releases spread toxic pollution to previously clean areas,” Pallone said in opening remarks for a recent hearing on the proposed legislation. “We can and should address this threat.”
The Clean Future Act, Pallone said, is meant to compliment President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which has a provision that would bring back the levy on polluters.
The most recent Republican counter to Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes $13 billion for “safety” and $35 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency to address drinking water and wastewater, but does not specifically note correcting the current deficiencies in Superfund cleanup timeframes, or taxing polluters to replenish the trust.
“Reinstating this polluter pays tax must be part of any conversation we have in Congress about Superfund,” Pallone said.
Superfund sites and vulnerable communities
The new report from Gordner and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Environment America also serves to highlight the most troubling reality within the nexus of increasingly severe weather and the Superfund program: the majority of the U.S.’s most toxic waste sites are located adjacent to the most socially vulnerable communities.
Some 70% of Superfund sites are within one mile of public housing, where families are disproportionately low-income communities of color. Additionally, according to a 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office, 60% of these sites are located in areas that are at risk of being impacted by flooding, storm surge, wildfires and sea-level rise.
These statistics are in stark display in Newark. The city is home to four Superfund sites and hundreds of other toxic properties and facilities. Two of these sites and many of the contaminated properties are situated within or adjacent to the city’s Ironbound district, whose community is predominately Black and brown.
“Unfortunately, this state has had a history of keeping public housing out of middle-class neighborhoods,” the Sierra Club’s McFarland said. “Instead, affordable housing ends up near Superfunds sites and near areas with high levels of pollution.”
During superstorm Sandy, vast areas of the Ironbound, East Ferry, and the industrial sprawl along Doremus Avenue, at the confluence of the Passaic and Hackensack rivers, were inundated by the nearly 12-foot storm surge. At Superfund sites across the region, Sandy’s floodwaters transported myriad types of surface contamination across city streets, sidewalks, yards and the ground floors of homes.
More flooding, said Gordner, can only mean more risk.