GAO Report Warns: EPA Must Prepare Superfund Sites for Natural Disasters


According to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, climate change may increase the frequency and intensity of certain natural disasters, which could damage Superfund sites—the nation’s most contaminated hazardous waste sites. Federal data suggests about 60 percent of Superfund sites overseen by EPA are in areas that may be impacted by wildfires and different types of flooding—natural hazards that may be exacerbated by climate change.

As the GAO noted,

“We found that EPA has taken some actions to manage risks at these sites. However, we recommend it provide direction on integrating climate information into site-level decision making to ensure long-term protection of human health and the environment.”

More on the Study: As The Verge reported, Superfund sites are locations so contaminated that they’ve been placed on a National Priorities List by the Environmental Protection Agency. Of 1,571 nonfederal Superfund sites spread across the country that the GAO examined, 945 are vulnerable to some of the most extreme effects of climate change. The GAO plotted these 945 climate-vulnerable locations on an interactive map color-coded to show whether each site is threatened by wildfires, storm surge, sea-level rise, or coastal and river flooding.

The Superfund SNAFU: As the Atlantic explained,

  • Originally, environmental taxes on chemical manufacturers and other companies supported the government’s share. But since the taxes were repealed in 2001, appropriations from the federal general fund have paid for the program.
  • That money dwindled in the ensuing years, since Congress always appropriated less than the expected revenue from the old taxes, and the number of Superfund cleanups plummeted. Environmental activists and lawyers fear the EPA’s capabilities to monitor and manage Superfund sites are diminishing, too. And one key component of that monitoring and management is disaster response.

Why This Matters: Spilled Superfund sites can cause deadly outcomes for the people that have to live near them, not to mention the havoc they wreak on wildlife. Flooded Superfund sites aren’t a new risk, in 2017 the Associated Press conducted a similar study to the GAO and we’ve seen the effects play out in real life after Hurricane Harvey. These points underscore the importance of an agency like the EPA to carry out its mission of protecting human health and the environment. We deserve a government that is fully prepared to face the risks of climate change and the inevitable threats they will pose to people.

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