The Environmental Protection has been unable to inspect many of the contaminated hazardous waste sites in Texas flooded by Hurricane Harvey, even as kids have reportedly been swimming in waters that have passed through these federal or state-designated toxic sites.
The EPA said on Saturday that aerial imagery showed 13 of the 41 designated Superfund sites in the Houston area were flooded by Harvey and were “experiencing possible damage” due to the storm. Of these sites, the EPA said just two have been inspected and will not require emergency cleanup, although additional sampling in the area will continue to be conducted.
The remaining eleven sites “have not been accessible by response personnel,” the EPA said. “Teams are in place to investigate possible damage to these sites as soon [as] flood waters recede, and personnel are able to safely access the sites,” the agency added.
The Associated Press reported Saturday that its journalists used a boat to examine the condition of one flooded Houston-area Superfund site, and was able to check on other sites with a vehicle or on foot. The news service said it surveyed seven Superfund sites in and around Houston during the flooding. All had been filled with water, some several feet deep.
Threats to human health and wildlife from floodwaters that inundate Superfund sites vary widely depending on the specific contaminants and the concentrations involved, the Associated Press reported. The EPA, under President Barack Obama, assessed the increased threat to Superfund sites from climate change, including rising sea levels and stronger hurricanes.
“Increased contaminant spread could occur because of the greater incidence of flooding at contaminated sites from heavy precipitation, hurricanes, and sea level rise,” the EPA said in the report.
The Superfund program was established in 1980 to clean up hazardous waste sites left behind by industry. Since being sworn in as EPA administrator in February, Scott Pruitt has vowed on multiple occasions to make the federal government’s Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program one of his top priorities. Pruitt contends that the Superfund program has languished over the years and lacked the leadership to get the 1,300-plus sites cleaned up.
But the Superfund program is also facing significant budgetary cuts if the Trump administration has its way. The EPA’s proposed budget cuts total Superfund cleanup funding by $330 million, a reduction of over 30 percent.
Wes Highfield, a scientist at Texas A&M University’s Galveston campus, saw large retention ponds near his home in south Houston filled up with floodwater where “kids were swimming.” A toxic Superfund site — where ethylbenzene, chlorinated hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds were once pooled in pits before the EPA removed them — sits “just up the road, and it drains into our watershed,” he told the Washington Post.
Another Superfund site, the San Jacinto Waste Pits site located east of Houston, has a temporary armored cap designed to prevent migration of hazardous material, the EPA said. The cap is expected to be inspected by boat on Monday. The agency said it has dive teams to survey the cap underwater when conditions allow.