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Hundreds of Superfund sites face flood risks

More than 6,000 residents live within 1 mile of toxic site in Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla – The Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 1,800 old manufacturing and chemical plants, landfills, waste treatment centers and military sites across the nation as hazardous areas that pose a risk to human and environmental health.

They are called federal Superfund sites, but it now appears more than 300 of those sites are too close for comfort -- if high water rushes in.

News4Jax spoke with one of the residents near the old Kerr-McGee Chemical plant.

"I didn't know nothing about it. You're the first one that's brought (it) up to me," said Ronnie Johnston. 

Johnston has lived in Jacksonville's Talleyrand neighborhood for the past four years. But he's never noticed the fading caution signs that line the site of the old Kerr-McGee Chemical plant. 
Johnston lives just two blocks away from one of Jacksonville’s two federal Superfund sites that are either located in a floodplain or vulnerable to sea level rise. The other Superfund site is the old Pickettville Road Landfill on the city's Westside.

"I am concerned," said Johnston. 

The EPA says the undeveloped and unoccupied Kerr-McGee plant site "does not currently threaten people living and working near the site." However, the agency notes that health problems could arise if anyone drinks or touches contamination in the groundwater, soil or sediment. 

While the grounds of the plant are secured, 3,900 people who live within a mile of the plant aren't protected in the case of rising seas.  

The site is vulnerable to a 5-foot sea level rise -- a number that could easily be topped by the rising waters of a coastal flood event like a hurricane -- exposing people who live nearby to dangerous chemicals such as pesticides, metals and volatile organic compounds. 

And with that in mind, Johnston says he thinks he may have to find a new place to live.

"I may have to move. If I have to move, then you know, I worry about these babies right here more than anything," said Johnston, "and if there's something wrong over there I don't want to live here when there could be chemicals that may be harming them."

News4Jax reached out to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for a response to these findings. In a statement, the department said:

"EPA Region 4 worked to evaluate and secure all Superfund sites, including the Kerr McGee and Picketville landfill sites, prior to hurricane Irma, and conducted post-storm inspections to assess the status of these sites, as well as their risk management and facility response plans post-storm."

As for the Pickettville Road Landfill, it's located in a 100-year-flood zone and a little more than 2,000 people live within a mile of its location. We also found that three flood-prone Superfund sites are in Glynn County, Georgia, where as many as 4,000 people within a mile of one of the sites.

The Associated Press found dozens more sites like these across the state and found most of them are concentrated in South Florida.

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 against 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.