Stop floods from turning Superfund sites into toxic soup in our backyards | Editorial

Earl Wilson, of the Eastwick Association, talks about the area behind him that the EPA is cleaning up, near the backyards of residents, in Eastwick.

Anyone who lives near a creek, a river, or the Jersey Shore knows that floods are occurring more frequently and with greater destructive power than just a few years ago. But the likelihood of flooding is not even considered when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decides when to clean up the area’s most dangerous toxic sites. It should be.

There are 14 sites right in this region which are so toxic that they are on the Superfund list;  they are also in flood zones or areas susceptible to rising seas, staff writer Frank Kummer recently reported. That means floodwaters can spread acids, solvents, pesticides, and known carcinogens like polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) beyond the borders of the toxic dumps.

And, it’s already happened. During Hurricane Floyd in 1999,  floodwaters washed through nearby landfills over lawns and into homes throughout Eastwick, near the Philadelphia International Airport.

The region should be ready for the next superstorm,  and certainly ready to contain toxic elements from spilling out of dumps and into homes and playgrounds.

While the Superfund Act of 1980, designed to identify and clean up hazardous waste sites,  was a tremendous accomplishment at the time, weather has changed a lot in the last 38 years. The act needs to be updated with those changes in mind. Even the act’s author now says that the likelihood of flooding should be a factor in deciding which toxic dumps to clean up first. Whether a dump is in a flood zone “should be one of the criteria for evaluating them,” said former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, who authored the Superfund Act when he was in Congress.

The likelihood of flooding is considered as a factor only after a toxic site is placed on the fund’s  national priorities list. While that helps planners figure out how to keep poisons from flowing into nearby areas, it comes too late in the process.  Flooding should be a consideration for deciding when to clean up a site.

The Superfund national priorities list uses scores based on a site’s threats to the public and the environment. Certainly, a site’s vulnerability to flooding is a threat to the public and the environment.

Florio is absolutely right that the law needs to be upgraded. Good law reflects change. But we are in an era of bad environmental planning in Washington.

President Trump’s June withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, intended to reduce the dangerous effects of climate change, is just one of the signs of his administration’s priorities.  He singled out the EPA for deep budget cuts and a senseless rollback of rules intended to keep us safe. On Thursday, he said he wanted to open more of the coastlines to offshore oil drillers.

But we can still protect our health even if the federal government won’t. Gov. Wolf, in Pennsylvania, and Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, in New Jersey, are well aware of the effects of climate change, toxic waste, and floods. They should each upgrade plans to protect toxic sites in flood-prone areas — especially since, as we all know, the weather’s getting more dangerous than ever.