Historic Midwest flooding sparks concerns about drinking water, toxic sites

"We've constantly been concerned about floods."

Flood water covers Highway  59 as it approaches town on March 22, 2019 in Craig, Missouri. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Flood water covers Highway 59 as it approaches town on March 22, 2019 in Craig, Missouri. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Record-shattering floods across the Midwest have devastated parts of the region, with thousands of residents now facing a long and expensive recovery.

But even in areas that managed to avoid the worst of the damage, local experts are worried about a range of environmental hazards — from drinking water to Superfund sites — that pose a serious threat to public health. With flooding predicted to worsen throughout the region due to climate change, those risks won’t dissipate when these floodwaters recede.

“We have radioactive waste in our floodplain in Bridgeton,” Heather Navarro, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE), told ThinkProgress. “There’s coal ash in our floodplains as well as wastewater treatment plants. [And] many farms spread excessive amounts of manure and this waste gets swept away, along with other chemicals on farm fields and even livestock.”

The flooding began three weeks ago, after a “bomb cyclone” hit the region and unleashed a torrent of snow, which then melted. Several states along the upper stretch of the Missouri River took a major hit; in Nebraska, entire towns were isolated by the flooding. Native communities on reservations have struggled to access food and water, while farms across the area have suffered massive livestock loss along with ruined harvests.


Environmental issues raised by the region’s flooding range dramatically, but all point to the long-term problems that accompany an uptick in rain and extreme weather events. At least seven Superfund sites have been threatened by flooding since the waters first begin rising, in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska.

While the damage has been less severe in Missouri, road closures and the persistent threat of rising waters continue to impact the state, even as the floodwaters begin to recede. That’s weighing on officials and experts in the state, who are monitoring a number of problem areas with an eye toward the coming weeks; a new forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts even more unprecedented flooding this spring.

“Missouri has two sites we’re keeping our eye on,” Brian Quinn, who works with the state’s Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ), told ThinkProgress: the Conservation Chemical Company site and the St. Joseph City Landfill site, also known as the McArthur Drive Landfill.

One of those, the Conservation Chemical Company site, is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a Superfund site — an area so severely contaminated it has been designated for cleanup by the federal government. It is also one of two sites the EPA has said it is currently monitoring amid the flooding; the second is the Nebraska Ordnance Plant in Mead, Nebraska.

Missouri’s other area of concern, the landfill, was roughly half inundated by flooding, Quinn said, and the state is still monitoring the site for damage.

According to the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment (NCA) released last fall, the Midwest will face a steady rise in heavy downpours and flooding as climate change worsens. That will affect everything from air quality to infrastructure to agriculture, in addition to hitting the region’s fossil fuel-dependent electricity system hard.


The EPA says there have been no toxic releases at any Superfund sites impacted by flooding and the agency has not issued any public health advisories or alerts. But the EPA also hasn’t conducted any soil or water testing at the sites.

“As floodwaters recede and areas become safely accessible, EPA will ensure impacted sites are evaluated further to determine if additional actions are necessary,” the agency stated in a news release last week. “Additional actions may include sampling and site inspections, among others, to ensure that installed remedies remain operational.”

That isn’t comforting for communities in the area. Ed Smith, the policy director for MCE, told ThinkProgress that environmental hazards are an increasing source of concern in Missouri as flooding worsens. One major worry is coal ash, the toxic remains of coal after it is burned, which includes lead and arsenic.

“A lot of our coal ash facilities are located in flood plains,” said Smith.

President Donald Trump’s administration has worked to weaken coal ash regulations, but Missouri has been a rare case where the EPA has deemed the state’s proposed coal ash standards too weak to protect the environment and human health. Ameren, a power company, is also under pressure from residents to remove coal ash ponds in Labadie, Missouri, not far from St. Louis in the eastern part of the state.

“We’ve constantly been concerned about floods,” said Smith, pointing to the public health and environmental threat posed by coal ash, which can cause major damage to the nervous system and harm wildlife.


Also on Smith’s mind is the closed West Lake Landfill, a Superfund site in Bridgeton, Missouri. The unlined, mixed-waste landfill has been shown to contain radioactive waste. And while flooding hasn’t impacted that area at present, Smith worries about long-term ramifications, like increased risk of contamination.

“With each passing flood, there is a flushing effect. Goes up, comes down, goes up… [it’s] going to impact the radioactive material that the EPA chooses to leave at the site,” he said.

Communities’ concerns extend beyond the nearby Superfund sites. “The other issue with which we’re dealing is flooding of private drinking water wells, along with public drinking water and wastewater treatment systems in communities along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers,” said Quinn, of the Missouri DEQ.

Around a dozen public drinking water systems have been impacted by the flooding in Missouri, along with six public wastewater systems. Flooding escalates the risk of bacteria associated with agriculture — including fecal matter — but it also carries chemicals, sewage, and other contamination into water systems.

Quinn advised private well water users in particular that they should rely on bottled water until follow-up tests give them the all-clear. “From a public and environmental health perspective, flooding presents a staggering array of short- and long-term problems,” he said.

Efforts to address the risks associated with climate change and pollution are in part the responsibility of local governments. But the Trump administration is also in the process of rolling back environmental regulations that are key to safeguarding the environment and public health in the wake of extreme events like the Midwest flooding. Experts say plans to replace the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule would endanger the environment and reduce the protection wetlands offer from flooding. And the president’s 2020 budget proposal would cut EPA funding by 31% — including funding for Superfund site remediation.

That’s particularly worrying for local experts in states like Missouri, where pollution and overdevelopment without regard for climate resiliency are exacerbating flooding issues. According to Smith, as flooding worsens, those factors will continue to be a severe problem.

“I think that one of the things that we need to recognize is that climate change is only playing a part when it comes to flooding issues,” he said.