A Post-Hurricane Witches’ Brew at Superfund Sites

By Jacqueline Toth

As Hurricane Harvey pummeled southeastern Texas and Hurricane Irma did her damage along Florida’s spine, no one was sure if the heavy rains and flooding would breach the many Superfund sites in their paths. Those are places the government has deemed contaminated with toxic waste, based on a cleanup plan Congress wrote into law in 1980.

September 8, 2017: Hurricane Irma closes in on Florida and over 90 Superfund sites contaminated with toxic waste. Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — all with substantial areas declared federal disaster zones after being hit by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria — had a total of 236 such sites standing in harm’s way. (Ryan Kelly/CQ Roll Call)

The good news is that surveys of sites in areas affected by the hurricanes so far show they remained secure, with a few exceptions that are under repair, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But other concerns loom: How can new contamination be prevented as oil- and chemical-saturated waste from hurricane cleanup is dumped into landfills? How can sites awaiting cleanup best be secured against storms? And how aggressively will the EPA and others responsible clean up the sites as threats grow that more frequent storms could expose buried contaminants?

Some are questions born from experiences following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

After Katrina, controversy dogged Louisiana’s decision to dispose hurricane detritus at the Gentilly Landfill, a long-closed New Orleans facility that lacked the modern underground liners designed to protect groundwater.

By 2008, the contamination from that disposal was clear and Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and then-ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, publicly criticized the decision.

“The people of the city of New Orleans do not need two new Superfund sites; they need their hurricane debris removed,” he said at the time.

Back then, Congress devoted little attention to how Superfund sites fared in those storms. Committees held no hearings specifically about those questions, and even the House, which formed a bipartisan committee to investigate the preparation for and response to Katrina, made no mention of Superfund sites in its 2006 official report.

Only Georgia Democratic Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney raised the issue in a supplement to that report, suggesting the Superfund program would have been an optimal means for handling Gulf waste after Katrina if one form of funding — fees paid by chemical and other industries — hadn’t expired in 1995.

After Sandy, the EPA’s 247 Superfund site evaluations in New York and Superfund-heavy New Jersey did not suggest any had been damaged enough to pose health threats, though some underwent further tests.

Still, some lawmakers were concerned. Then-New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg asked the EPA to continue studying the Superfund sites and introduced a bill in 2012 to provide annual funding for EPA assessments or repairs after natural disasters.

This time around, congressional briefings on storm contamination questions and response efforts are yet to come. “They’re in emergency response mode, and they’ve been that way now for several weeks,” says Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican who chairs the Environment and Public Works Superfund, Waste Management and Regulatory Oversight Subcommittee. “We’ll allow them a chance to do their work before we start second-guessing what they’re doing.”

Rounds plans to hold at least one hearing on the hurricanes’ impacts on Superfund sites and will ask agencies for an update this month, according to his staff.

Kamala Harris of California, ranking Democrat on the Superfund subcommittee, said through a spokesman she will urge “vigorous oversight of how public safety was protected” during the storms.

Deadly Aftermath

Hurricanes the size of Harvey and Irma leave behind vast destruction and massive amounts of waste, much of which is or has the potential to turn toxic.

Superfund sites hit by Hurricane Harvey (Source: EPA, University of California, Davis Center for Watershed Sciences)

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita together resulted in enough debris “to fill the Louisiana Superdome more than 10 times,” Mike McDaniel, then the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at a 2007 field hearing.

But the urge to clean up and return to normalcy makes clearing yards, streets and properties paramount, along with quickly mounting demands to find places to put the debris, no matter how contaminated.

“Everybody wants to move quick,” says Darryl Malek-Wiley, senior organizing representative with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice and Community Partnership Program. “They don’t want to see it in the streets, they want to try and go back to the way they were.”

Superstorm Sandy left tons of rubbish and muck when it pummeled the Northeast five years ago.

“Everything was about cleaning up and nobody was looking at what the environmental impacts are,” says Jeff Tittel, senior director at the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter.

A Cautionary Tale

After Katrina, the quick answer was to reopen the Gentilly Landfill to take in hurricane debris.

As part of a 2008 report on Katrina debris removal, state environmental officials told the Government Accountability Office they had found Gentilly to be safe for such disposal, and its location near the most heavily damaged parts of the city meant reduced costs and less effect on traffic when removing debris.

But using Gentilly for Katrina waste worried environmentalists. The landfill had been closed in the 1980s but was allowed to take in more types of debris after Katrina, including possibly hazardous waste like carpeting or items contaminated with asbestos.

The Louisiana Environmental Action Network in October 2005 urged the state to stop using Gentilly for hurricane debris. Gentilly was not outfitted with the right safeguards and was “poorly suited to handle … the flood-soaked contents of gutted New Orleans homes,” the group argued in a petition.

Other, more modern landfills were available instead of Gentilly, the group said, and using the landfill for Katrina debris exacerbated concerns over degradation of the wetlands around the landfill.

According to Army Corps of Engineers testimony to Congress about the petition in 2007, both parties signed a consent agreement in 2006 limiting daily dumps at the site.

But use of Gentilly was of particular concern to environmentalists who recalled a similar decision after 1965’s Hurricane Betsy.

To help manage debris from that storm, officials decided to reopen the city’s Agriculture Street Landfill for one year. It was an old dumpsite that had been shut down in the late 1950s after about 50 years in operation. For some of its history, the area was sprayed with DDT, the toxic chemical. Then for half a year after Betsy, as many as 300 truck loads of debris were dumped daily and then burned, which may have contributed to contamination problems that led to the site’s Superfund listing in 1994.

Site testing prior to the listing revealed dangerous levels of lead, as well as the presence of arsenic and carcinogenic hydrocarbons. Cleanup of the Agriculture Street Landfill ended in 2001 before Katrina, though after the storm, evacuated locals worried the site was compromised by the hurricane, according to a 2014 EPA community involvement plan for the landfill.

Similar complaints and concerns were raised over a second disposal site for Katrina debris at the Chef Menteur Landfill, another unlined site opened by emergency authorization after the storm. Situated next to a wildlife refuge and a Vietnamese-American neighborhood of New Orleans, the public fretted about contamination from the landfill both before and after it closed in August 2006.

Worried About Caps

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s historic rainfall, the EPA found most Superfund sites escaped unscathed, and those that experienced damage have undergone repairs.

But questions persist about whether the caps, which cover and secure some of the sites from the elements, are sufficient.

Caps over Superfund sites are meant to isolate contaminants, prevent them from spreading and protect people from contact with the toxins underneath. They range from a single layer of asphalt or concrete to several layers, which may include soil, sand, gravel, plastic-style membranes or clay, depending on the type of contamination they protect.

Some caps control gas emissions. And many capped sites have been redeveloped for other uses, like generating solar energy or providing wildlife habitat.

But caps are not immune to damage and require occasional maintenance even in good times. Cap damage carries the risk of exposing people and the environment to the toxins they are intended to cover.

Harvey’s floodwaters, for example, covered the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site, which contains carcinogenic pollutants from pulp and paper mill dumping decades ago. EPA inspections after the storm showed cap damage and some exposed waste from underneath. Testing at part of the site revealed carcinogenic dioxin levels far beyond the recommended clean up level.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt visited Houston and the waste pits last month and said such temporary measures to secure caps over Superfund sites can’t be counted on in a big storm.

Pruitt (Riccardo Savi/Getty Images)

The cap, according to EPA’s proposed cleanup plan, was built to withstand 100-year storms, if not 500-year storms like Harvey. But cap erosion at the site has occurred after 20-year floods, and Pruitt promised a permanent solution for the site.

Democrat Gene Green, whose Texas House district used to border the site before redistricting, supports full removal of its contaminants. No cap is secure enough to protect against floods that are sure to come, he says.

“The tides will get it, the flooding from upstream will come. And this is not the first flooding we’ve had,” he says.

The Sierra Club’s Tittel is also skeptical that caps are sufficient to secure the sites, especially at Superfund sites in New Jersey. He says one problem is the EPA has allowed sites in floodplains to be capped. In a storm surge, he says, “the cap’s gonna get destroyed.”

The EPA also performed additional assessments at the U.S. Oil Recovery Superfund site in Pasadena, Texas, which media reports had indicated experienced spills as a result of Harvey. The agency said last month it found no evidence of a discharge but ordered water samples and the removal of stormwater, though Green, whose district includes the site, has asked Pruitt for further information on EPA’s response.

Since the hurricanes, 23 members of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition asked Pruitt — who has downplayed humans’ impact on climate change — how he will prepare for Superfund cleanups and other toxic removals “in light of increases in extreme weather.”

In a letter, they urged the EPA to be proactive “by cleaning up contaminated sites as aggressively as possible before disaster strikes.”

Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Superfund, Waste Management and Regulatory Oversight Subcommittee, this year echoed McKinney’s comments from 2005 when he said the ultimate solution is to finish cleanups at the more than 1,340 Superfund sites nationwide, so toxic and other dangerous waste isn’t left lying around to be affected by record storms.

“Flooded Superfund sites that we saw during Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Harvey are symptoms of a larger problem — the dramatic backlog of Superfund sites in dire need of being cleaned up,” he said through a spokeswoman. “The best way to prevent Superfund sites from flooding during a once in 500 years storm is to clean them up so they’re no longer a risk.”