When Anthony Stansbury moved down the street from the Anclote River in Florida last year, he didn’t know his slice of paradise had a hidden problem.
The neighborhood is adjacent to the Stauffer Chemical Co. Superfund site, a former chemical manufacturing plant on the list of the nation’s most polluted places. It is also located in a flood zone.
“Me and my kids fish here a couple times a week. Everyone who lives on this coast right here, they fish on this water daily,” said the 39-year-old father of three.
Stansbury is among nearly 2 million people in the U.S. who live within a mile of 327 Superfund sites in areas prone to flooding or vulnerable to rising seas caused by climate change, according to an Associated Press analysis of flood zone maps, census data and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.
This year’s historic hurricane season exposed a little-known public health threat: Highly-polluted sites can be inundated, potentially spreading toxic contamination.
In Houston, more than a dozen Superfund sites were flooded by Hurricane Harvey, with breaches reported at two. In the Southeast and Puerto Rico, Superfund sites were battered by driving rains and winds from Irma and Maria.
The vulnerable sites highlighted by AP’s review are scattered across the nation, but Florida, New Jersey and California have the most, and the most people living near them. They are in largely low-income, heavily minority neighborhoods, the data show.
Many of the 327 sites have had at least some work done to help mitigate the public health threat, including fencing them off and covering them in plastic sheeting to help keep out rainwater.
The Obama administration assessed some of these at-risk places and planned to guard them from harsher weather and rising seas. EPA’s 2014 Climate Adaptation Plan said prolonged flooding at low-lying Superfund sites could cause extensive erosion, carrying away contaminants as waters recede.
President Donald Trump, however, has called climate change a hoax, and his administration has worked to remove references from federal reports and websites linking carbon emissions to the warming planet.
“The current administration appears to be trying to erase these efforts in their climate change denials, which is a shame,” Phyllis Anderson, an attorney who worked as EPA’s associate director of the division that manages Superfund cleanups until her retirement in 2013.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said he intends to focus on Superfund cleanup, and appointed a task force that developed a list of high-priority sites.
The task force’s 34-page report makes no mention of a flood risk to Superfund sites from stronger storms or rising seas, but eight of the 21 sites on EPA’s priority list are in areas of flood risk. The Stauffer site in Florida is not on it.
Despite EPA’s announced emphasis on expediting cleanups, the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 spending plan seeks to slash Superfund program funding by nearly one third. Congress has not yet approved it.
Pruitt’s office declined to comment this week on the key findings of AP’s analysis. “Despite fear-mongering from the Associated Press, not a single dollar has actually been eliminated, as Congress still hasn’t passed a budget,” said Jahan Wilcox, an EPA spokesman.
Many flood-prone Superfund sites identified through AP’s analysis are in low-lying, densely populated urban areas.
The Martin Aaron Inc. Superfund site is in Camden, New Jersey’s Waterfront South, a low-income neighborhood along the Delaware River. Testing found that soil and groundwater under the site contained highly toxic chemicals, including PCBs and pesticides. EPA plans to eventually cover the land and restrict future use.
Just around the corner, longtime neighborhood resident Mark Skinner shrugged when asked about the former industrial site.
“It’s really contaminated, there’s a lot of stuff in the ground, but I don’t know what all it is,” said Skinner, 53.
Foul-smelling water filled the streets there during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, flooding basements, long-time residents said. Census data show about 17,250 people live within a mile of the Martin Aaron site – 58 percent are black and 36 percent are Latino.
Across the nation, more than 800,000 homes are located near flood-prone toxic sites. Houses are at risk of contamination from flooding, but many more people could be affected if the contamination seeps into the ground, finding its way into drinking water.
At the Stauffer site in Florida testing showed the lot’s soils were contaminated with radium, the banned pesticide DDT, arsenic, lead and other pollutants that over the years have fouled the area’s groundwater and the river.
Environmental regulators say the site, which was hit by Hurricane Irma, now poses no threat to people or the environment because the current owner, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, paid to treat contaminated soils, and cover the pollution with a “cap” of clean earth. Still, residential development and use of groundwater on the site are prohibited.
Covering toxic waste is a cheaper option than removing the pollutants, said Jeff Cunningham, a civil engineering professor at the University of South Florida.
“As a long-term strategy, capping only works if the contaminants degrade to safe levels before the capping system eventually fails. What if it takes centuries for some of these contaminants to degrade to safe levels?” Cunningham said.
(Associated Press environmental writer Michael Biesecker reported from Camden, New Jersey.)