By ELLEN KNICKMEYER
WASHINGTON — The worsening wildfires, floods and hurricanes of climate change threaten at least 60% of U.S. Superfund sites, and efforts to strengthen the hazardous waste sites are stalling in some vulnerable regions as the Trump administration plays down the threat, a congressional watchdog agency says.
The Environmental Protection Agency responded to Monday’s report of the Government Accountability Office by rejecting many of its findings. That includes dismissing GAO investigators’ recommendation that the agency and Administrator Andrew Wheeler explicitly state that the EPA’s mission includes dealing with climate change and its increased risk of disasters breaching Superfund sites.
Assistant EPA administrator Peter Wright largely avoided the words “climate change” in his formal response to the GAO and in a statement Monday. “The EPA strongly believes the Superfund program’s existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events, that may increase in intensity, duration, or frequency, are woven into risk response decisions at nonfederal NPL sites,” Wright said.
The GAO report emphasizes the challenges for government agencies under President Donald Trump, who belittles the science of climate change.
Wheeler’s highest-profile public remarks on the matter came in a March CBS interview, when Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, called global heating “an important change” but not one of the agency’s most pressing problems.
“Most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out,” Wheeler said then, rejecting conclusions by scientists that damage to climate from fossil fuel emissions already is making natural disasters fiercer and more frequent.
The GAO review comes after a 2017 review by The Associated Press found that 2 million people in the U.S. live within a mile of 327 Superfund sites in areas prone to flooding or vulnerable to sea level rise caused by climate change. The AP analyzed national flood zone maps, census data and EPA records in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded more than a dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area, with breaches reported at two. At the time, an EPA spokesman derided AP’s reporting as “fear-mongering.”
GAO investigators looked at 1,571 Superfund sites — locations around the country contaminated by hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open or otherwise improperly managed. That number does not include Superfund sites owned by the Defense Department and other federal agencies.
At least 945 of the sites are in areas identified as at greater risk of floods, storm surge from major hurricanes, wildfires or sea-level rise of three feet or more, the GAO says.
Broken down, that includes 783 Superfund sites at greater risk of flooding under climate change, 234 Superfund sites at high or very high risk from wildfires and 187 sites vulnerable to storm surge from any Category 4 or 5 hurricane, the researchers said.
Senate Democrats asked for the Gao review. A dozen senior congressional Democrats on Monday urged the agency to follow the GAO recommendations.
“By refusing to address the worsening impacts of climate change – from flooding to wildfires to more frequent extreme weather events – at our nation’s Superfund sites, this EPA is putting public health at risk,” Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, said.