Watchdog agency: 21 Michigan Superfund sites threatened by climate change

Portage Creek running through the Allied Paper site in December 2007 | Jeremy M. Winkworth, Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON — Twenty-one of the most contaminated sites in Michigan are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a new report from a government watchdog agency.  

Superfund sites in the United States | GAO

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent agency that works for the U.S. Congress, assessed how impacts of climate change — including flooding, storm surge, wildfires and sea level rise — might impact some of the most dangerous hazardous waste sites around the country. The agency looked at 1,336 “active” sites on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priorities List and 421 “deleted” sites where EPA had determined no further cleanup was needed. 

Nationwide, about 60% of those sites are located in places that might be impacted by the effects of climate change, the report found. GAO looked only at non-federal sites, which means the agency excluded the roughly 10% of Superfund sites owned or operated by the federal government. 

In Michigan, 21 of the 84 active and deleted sites surveyed and analyzed by GAO are in areas deemed vulnerable to flood hazards. 

Michigan Superfund sites | GAO

Those include the Allied Paper Inc., property in Kalamazoo; the Grand Traverse Overall Supply Site in Leelanau County; the SCA Independent Landfill in Muskegon and other sites. 

GAO warned in its report that the impacts of climate change could pose risks to public health by spreading pollution from such sites. The agency pointed to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when an unprecedented amount of rainfall dumped on Houston, damaging Superfund sites and releasing toxic materials. 

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According to GAO, EPA’s strategic plan from 2018 to 2022 “does not include goals and objectives related to climate change or discuss strategies for addressing the impacts of climate change effects.” EPA officials interviewed by GAO said that the agency doesn’t always include climate change when it’s assessing risks at Superfund sites. 

U.S. President Donald Trump (C) leads a cabinet meeting at the White House July 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Under the President Trump administration, the EPA has rolled back many of the former President Obama administration’s policies to address climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Trump EPA told GAO it believes the Superfund program adequately considers the risks of severe weather events. 

Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Monday expressing concern over GAO’s findings and over EPA’s response. 

“We believe that EPA’s refusal to implement GAO’s recommendations could result in real harm to human health and the environment as the effects of climate change become more frequent and intense,” the lawmakers wrote. They asked EPA to answer a series of questions by next month about how it plans to address the risks climate change poses to Superfund sites.