When hurricanes Harvey and Irma flooded more than a dozen Superfund sites this year in the Southeast and Puerto Rico, residents in the Philadelphia area might have wondered: Could that happen here?
It already has. Earl Wilson, a retired Philly school teacher, recalled when flood waters from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 rushed waist-high, through his Eastwick neighborhood and into homes where Lower Darby and Cobbs creeks meet, near Philadelphia International Airport. But it would be three more years until the two neighboring landfills were declared a Superfund site, a federal Environmental Protection Agency designation that alerts everyone to serious contamination that needs urgent cleanup.
In 1999, "no one was concerned about what was in that water," Wilson said recently, shaking his head.
An Inquirer analysis of EPA documents shows that 14 Superfund sites in Philadelphia, its suburbs and South Jersey are within flood zones or areas susceptible to rising seas connected with climate change. Three of those sites were cleaned or capped, and then removed from a national cleanup priority list. All are near creeks, streams or the Delaware River, a major source of drinking water. Many are in low-income, minority areas.
Though each Superfund site on the priorities list gets a score for the threat it poses to public health, flood risk is not part of that calculation. The Trump administration has downplayed the previous administration's emphasis on climate change. So although EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said the agency would focus on Superfund sites, it's no longer talking much about how climate change could spread their toxins. A recent EPA task force report did not even mention threats to Superfund sites from stronger storms or rising seas. In addition, the Trump administration's 2018 spending proposal seeks to slash Superfund program funding by nearly one-third.
Among local sites still on the national priorities list:
The EPA, under the Obama administration, studied the risks of Superfund sites subject to climate change using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A recent Associated Press review of the data found that 2 million Americans live within a mile of one of the 327 vulnerable Superfund sites.
The Inquirer used AP's report, along with additional census data, to compile a local list. About 72,000 people in the Philadelphia region live within a mile of Superfund sites that are either within current flood zones or susceptible to sea level rise. About 64 percent of the residents are minorities, primarily black or Hispanic.
"There needs to be a greater sense of emergency preparedness on behalf of the EPA and the planning process," Howarth said. Specifically, she said, the nation's Superfund sites should be ranked according to which pose the most danger if they are flooded, so that it's clear which to inspect first for contaminant leaks after a storm.
"There are hundreds of superfund sites," she says. "There's no way anyone has the manpower to check them all in one week."
EPA plans only for what's known as a 100-year flood, meaning such an event has a one percent chance of occurring each year. Hurricane Floyd was so severe it is considered a 500-year flood. Scientists expect such catastrophes to become more common because of climate change.
Roy Seneca, a spokesman for EPA Region 3, which includes Pennsylvania, said cleanup plans do consider Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps, and sites in FEMA flood zones qualify for more stringent construction requirements.
Asked about the EPA's cleanup plan for the Eastwick site, Seneca said in an email that testing there "has indicated that flood events are not a primary mechanism for transporting contaminants related to the Clearview Landfill."
But floods have affected local EPA actions. The area around the BoRit Superfund site was flooded during both Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 as the site was being capped, spurring the agency to enhance the capping plan. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry acknowledges flooding has affected the BoRit site in recent years, but concludes it is "not likely to cause harmful effects" on "persons engaging in normal activities" such as walking along nearby trails.
Many of the residents who see the impact of rising waters are the least financially able to move to a safer place.
The Martin Aaron Superfund site in South Camden hosted heavy industry back to the 19th century. The air around it still stings of solvents. Soil and groundwater contain a toxic brew including PCBs and pesticides, testing found. Workers recently began removing contaminated soil and water.
During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, foul-smelling water filled the streets of the adjacent neighborhood, flooding many basements, long-time residents said. More than 17,000 people live within a mile of the Martin Aaron site, virtually all of them lower-income African Americans and Latinos.
On a recent day, Mark Skinner and his niece Cherise pushed her one-year-old son's stroller in front of her rented rowhouse around the corner from the industrial site. Skinner, 53, shrugged when asked about the ongoing cleanup work.
"It's really contaminated, there's a lot of stuff in the ground, but I don't know what all it is," said Skinner, who works at a nearby scrap metal yard and also lives in the shadow of the former industrial site.