Climate change bringing challenges for Superfund site cleanup  

By Barbara Reina

US efforts to clean up toxins and protect communities from some of the nation’s most contaminated sites are getting more difficult as climate change brings increasingly abnormal weather events that make containing chemical waste more challenging, experts warn.

Fast and heavy rainfall, sea level rise, sinking land and the loss of natural coastal barriers are among the factors that open the way for repeated flooding that can create havoc on US efforts to contain hazardous waste at many Superfund sites.

“There are hundreds of contaminated Superfund sites across the country that are at risk of extreme coastal flooding” and becoming “compromised,” said Jacob Carter, a scientist at the Partnership for Policy Integrity, who previously worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “I expect that we will continue to see more sites compromised as climate change progresses.”

Carter co-authored a 2020 report projecting at least 800 Superfund sites would be at risk of extreme flooding by 2040, even under a low sea level rise scenario.

Since then, the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation has been on the rise, according to the 2023 US Government Fifth National Climate Assessment. In 2022 alone, the US experienced 18 weather and climate disasters with damages exceeding $1 billion.

A 2023 report published by the American Chemical Society adds to concerns, projecting more than 400 potential sites in California that deal with hazardous waste – though not necessarily Superfund sites – will be threatened by a 1-in-100 year flood event due to sea level rise by the end of the century if climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.

Washed away
One ongoing example of the challenges is seen in the Dewey Loeffel Landfill Superfund site in Rensselaer County, New York, where the EPA has been working for years to deal with hazardous waste that includes cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBS). Regulators estimate more than 46,000 tons of waste were dumped at the 19-acre site decades ago, triggering fish and animal deaths and uncontrolled fires. Contamination spread to groundwater, soil, sediment and surface waters, according to the EPA.

“The impacts of climate change and extreme weather events are an important consideration in the Superfund process,” said Joe Battipaglia, remedial project manager for the Dewey Loeffel Superfund site.