Story at a glance

  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 945 of 1,571 Superfund sites are located in areas vulnerable to climate change effects like flooding, storm surges, wildfires and sea-level rise.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program is the key federal program responsible for attending to sites with hazardous substances.
  • The GAO report notes that if EPA fails to make changes, the agency "cannot ensure that remedies will protect human health and the environment in the long term.”

About 60 percent of U.S. Superfund sites are located in areas that are vulnerable to climate change effects like flooding, storm surges, wildfires and sea-level rise, according to a report issued Monday by the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency. 

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program is the key federal program for attending to sites with hazardous substances. These sites become contaminated “due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed,” according to the EPA website. The GAO report explains that the EPA has omitted climate change from the agency’s strategy and planning documents, preventing the EPA from addressing the risks that climate change poses to Superfund sites consistently throughout the country. The report adds, “Officials in two regions told us that they do not have direction on how to alter their practices to account for climate change.” 

For example, officials in Region 2 (which serves New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight tribal nations) said they “do not have instructions that identify a particular set of expectations, data, or maps that they should use when considering future risks from flooding.” And officials in Region 5 (which serves Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and 35 tribes) told GAO investigators that “they do not have any formal direction on how to address risks from climate change and are waiting for EPA headquarters to provide information on how to do so.”

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The GAO concludes that “without providing direction to remedial project managers on how to integrate information on the potential impacts of climate change effects into site-level risk assessments” at Superfund sites “across all regions and types of remedies, EPA cannot ensure that remedies will protect human health and the environment in the long term.”

In response to the GAO report, assistant EPA administrator Peter C. Wright wrote, “The EPA recognizes the importance of ensuring Superfund site cleanups are resilient in the face of existing risks and extreme weather events.” He continues, “The EPA strongly believes the Superfund program’s existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events are woven into risk assessments.”

GAO investigators looked at 1,571 Superfund sites as well as federal data on flooding, storm surges, wildfires and sea-level rise from the EPA, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Forest Service.

Published on Nov 18, 2019