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Florida reservoir collapse reveals cracks in environmental protections

Florida reservoir collapse reveals cracks in environmental protections
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Environmental and emergency response officials are working frantically to prevent a “catastrophic flood” of a leaking reservoir located on a former phosphate fertilizer processing plant near Tampa Bay, Fla. 

As of today, hundreds of millions of gallons of heavily contaminated water from the Piney Point plant has been discharged into Tampa Bay to stop the reservoir from collapsing and dumping a 20-foot wall of toxic water into surrounding communities.

While federal officials are working hard to deploy necessary resources, the incident does raise questions about how the Biden administration is working proactively to protect all communities from toxic contamination and environmental emergencies. The Biden administration has taken several preliminary steps to secure clean air, clean water and a healthy environment for all communities, including appointing environmental justice champions to the Council for Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), creating the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and committing to deploy significant resources to disinvested communities. These investments are certainly welcome, however, in light of what could be another significant environmental disaster in Florida, more must be done to protect communities living in close proximity to polluting facilities all around the country. Existing efforts to make meaningful investments in environmental justice communities must be coupled with commitments to reduce pollution at the source and protect communities from dangerous facilities in the face of increased flood and climate risks.

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The release of hazardous materials into surrounding Florida waterways and communities represents a systemic failure across our nation. In 2019, Tropical Storm Imelda flooded dozens of polluting facilities in Southeast Texas, resulting in the release of over 100,000 pounds of toxins, including known carcinogens, into neighboring communities. The following year, a Dow dam collapsed in Midland, Mich., and impacted thousands of residents. The same year in Philadelphia, the largest oil refinery on the East Coast had a major explosion, releasing thousands of pounds of toxic gasses and debris into the surrounding community. Though the refinery is permanently shut down, the impact of the explosion on surrounding residents may not be fully known for years to come. 

As the Biden administration looks to reinstate Obama-era rules that would require plants to notify local residents of dangerous chemicals they are storing and work collaboratively on emergency response plans, more must be done. Ensuring that communities near dangerous facilities have a seat at the table is important, but that seat must contain power and agency. Fundamentally, environmental agencies charged with keeping us safe must do a better job of shifting the burden of proof from communities to the types of facilities that place our health and environment in harm's way. 

Currently, in fighting with operators who pose significant risks to drinking water, clean air and the health of our neighborhoods, community residents must compete against armies of lawyers, lobbyists and paid experts who assert that facility operations are safe and without risk. The Piney Point catastrophe demonstrates that when the wellbeing of communities are at risk, the government must take a more active role. 

Existing power imbalances between industries and communities reveal a fundamental problem in the cost-benefit analysis approach of environmental regulations. The costs to industries to protect our environment and secure facilities to withstand flood, climate and unforeseen risks are more closely measured and monitored while the significant negative impacts to communities that accompany inaction and public health deregulation are only seen in the face of a major catastrophe. A safer, more community centered approach is possible. For example, as it relates to toxic substances regulations, the European Union has adopted a precautionary principle that requires companies to prove that their operations and the chemicals they produce are safe before it grants companies access to markets. We should consider this conceptual shift as we work to elevate the voices of communities living on the frontlines of heavily contaminated sites.

Additionally, the Biden administration should also lead the charge in evaluating new methods for paying for environmental cleanup. The Piney Point site was known to be contaminated for many years. Now, in the immediate aftermath of this incident, Florida lawmakers are seeking up to $200 million in federal taxpayer money to clean up the site. While we should certainly be spending more money to clean up sites that pose a threat to our environment, we should do so in a fair way that holds polluters accountable. Currently, one in six Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site. A recent report shows that over 800 of these Superfund sites along the East and Gulf Coasts are at risk of flooding over the next 20 years. If we are to meet the urgent challenge of cleaning up our nation’s most toxic sites, federal lawmakers must be willing to stand up to the actors responsible and demand that they foot the bill.

Lastly, in addition to shifting the burden of proof to better capture the risks to communities on the frontlines and devising fairer ways to fund cleanup programs, the Biden administration should also consider using existing authority to encourage the development of strong buffer zones between harmful polluters and the communities they operate in. In the state of Arkansas, for example, hazardous waste management facilities are prohibited from locating within one-half mile of any occupied dwelling. Across our nation, these types of protections are dependent on states and oftentimes exclude other types of facilities that present a significant risk to health and environment. The Biden administration should work to address these gaps so that all Americans, no matter their state, are able to access basic rights of clean air, clean water and a healthy community. 

Justin Onwenu is an organizer for The Sierra Club in Detroit. He is also a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. You can connect with him on Twitter at @JustinOnwenu.