Toxic waste fears following Texas flooding

There are fears that historic flooding in the US state of Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey could stir up dangerous sediment at a number of toxic waste sites.

Toxic waste fears following Texas flooding
Many areas of Southeastern Texas received more than 1,000mm of rain over a four-day period
Fears over potential damage to these toxic waste sites, known as Superfunds, have arisen due to the flooding across much of the Southeastern Texas area, with around 20 inches of rain falling over the weekend in the inland Houston area and the coastal Galveston Bay area.

The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rebuffed claims made in a report by the Associated Press (AP) on Saturday (2 September) that toxic waste sites in Texas had been flooded following the chaos wrought on the state by Hurricane Harvey, with no sign of EPA officers checking on the sites in the aftermath of the havoc.

On Saturday, the AP reported that it had surveyed seven Superfund sites around Houston during the flooding by foot and by boat and found them to be largely submerged with water. The EPA responded quickly saying that 13 out of the 41 Superfund sites in Texas had been affected by the flooding but were not ‘accessible’ by EPA officers, confirming the AP’s initial reporting that the EPA had not been able to dispatch personnel to the affected sites.

The EPA also stated that it had carried out aerial imaging to establish the extent of the damage to the 41 Superfund sites in Texas and that the EPA and state agencies have worked with relevant parties to secure Superfund sites before the hurricane, while assuring that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had visited disaster areas and was in constant contact with local, state and county officials.

Commenting on the dispute, EPA Associate Administrator Liz Bowman said: “Once again, in an attempt to mislead Americans, the Associated Press is cherry-picking facts, as EPA is monitoring Superfund sites around Houston and we have a team of experts on the ground working with our state and local counterparts responding to Hurricane Harvey. Anything to the contrary is yellow journalism.”

The Associated Press responded later on Sunday evening, stating: "AP's exclusive story was the result of on the ground reporting as well as AP's strong knowledge of these sites and EPA practices. We object to the EPA's attempts to discredit that reporting by suggesting it was completed solely from 'the comforts of Washington' and stand by the work of both journalists who jointly reported and wrote the story."

Toxic waste fears following Texas flooding
EPA under pressure

Superfunds, as they are colloquially known, take their name from the federal government Superfund program, set up in 1980 and designed to fund the cleanup of sites that have been contaminated with dangerous chemicals.

Naturally, there are concerns that the flooding will expose and carry toxic materials over a larger area, a risk noted in an Obama-era EPA report on the increased threat to US Superfund sites posed by climate change, with the report concluding that the threat level depends on the nature and concentration of contaminants involved.  

Given Trump’s questionable track record on his position towards climate change, all eyes were going to be on the EPA, mooted to be a target of closure by the controversial president.

Scrutiny increased even more after the appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator, given his reputation as a climate change denier. Since entering office Pruitt has delayed tougher air pollution rules, attempted to scrap Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030, rescinded the Clean Water Rule, and submitted a budget that would slash the agency’s funding by a third and cut money available for scientific research in half.