Toxic waste vs. cli­mate change

Will EPA con­sider the sci­ence as it fo­cuses on Su­per­fund sites?

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Wil­liam Yardley

SEAT­TLE — The pioneers who built Seat­tle pol­luted and plumbed the lower Duwamish River for a cen­tury, straight­en­ing its wild curves and sat­u­rat­ing its sed­i­ment with toxic chem­i­cals from an as­phalt plant, Boe­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties and other in­dus­tries.

The dam­age was so se­vere that the last five miles of the river be­fore it emp­ties into El­liott Bay were des­ig­nated a fed­eral Su­per­fund cleanup site in 2001 — an of­fi­cial stamp of dev­as­ta­tion that came all too late in the view of Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes that once fished for salmon here.

Now, even as progress has been made in the $342mil­lion cleanup, the river and the ef­fort to clean it face a new threat: cli­mate change. Sci­en­tists say that ris­ing seas could flood river­banks by mid­cen­tury and that po­ten­tial in­creases in storm-wa­ter runoff and down­stream flows could bore into sed­i­ment and re­lease tox­ins sealed be­low.

The chal­lenges are not iso­lated to the Duwamish. Ex­perts say that Su­per­fund sites across the coun­try — in­clud­ing Port­land Har­bor in Ore­gon, naval bases in Vir­ginia and land­fills in the Mid­west — are at risk from the in­creas­ingly ex­treme weather and ris­ing sea lev­els as­so­ci­ated with cli­mate change, and that meth­ods for clean­ing them may need to be rethought.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency be­gan do­ing just that, propos­ing tech­ni­cal guide­lines in 2015 to make Su­per­fund cleanups more re­silient to cli­mate change.

Yet how the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will ad­dress the dual threat of past and fu­ture is un­clear.

Scott Pruitt, the new EPA chief, has said clean­ing up Su­per­fund sites is at the top of his “back to basics” ap­proach for the agency. He has promised to stream­line the process, in­clud­ing by get­ting di­rectly in­volved with large projects.

Like Pres­i­dent Trump, Pruitt ques­tions the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus that hu­man ac­tiv­ity is driv­ing cli­mate change. He has had in­for­ma­tion about cli­mate sci­ence re­moved from the EPA’s web­site and played a prom­i­nent role in Trump’s re­cent de­ci­sion to with­draw from the Paris cli­mate ac­cord.

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups worry Pruitt will fa­vor in­ex­pen­sive meth­ods that fail to with­stand the test of time.

“Cli­mate change im­pacts ev­ery­thing,” said Gregg Small, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit Cli­mate So­lu­tions, based in Seat­tle. “You can­not solve any prob­lem if you are not deal­ing with cli­mate change, be­cause it ex­ac­er­bates ev­ery other prob­lem in the en­vi­ron­ment.”

The Su­per­fund pro­gram was once among the na­tion’s high­est-pro­file en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­forts. For four decades, it has iden­ti­fied and sought to re­me­di­ate sites con­tam­i­nated by in­dus­trial waste, runoff, min­ing, chem­i­cal use and other types of pol­lu­tion.

Rivers and ports have fre­quently been des­ig­nated Su­per­fund sites, as have older man­u­fac­tur­ing lo­ca­tions. Cleanups may in­volve re­mov­ing acres of con­tam­i­nated soil and re­plac­ing it with healthy soil, “cap­ping” a site with a layer of new soil, or let­ting na­ture slowly break down pol­lu­tants.

But an in­creas­ing un­der­stand­ing of cli­mate change pre­sented new ques­tions. Would capped tox­ins at a Su­per­fund site stay sealed in more ex­treme weather? What if storm wa­ter surged into an area more pow­er­fully than in the past? What if floods fore­cast to oc­cur once in a cen­tury hap­pened once ev­ery cou­ple decades?

“A sys­tem that was de­signed for re­me­dial ac­tion un­der one set of cir­cum­stances may fail com­pletely un­der other cir­cum­stances,” said Peter deFur, a Vir­gini­abased con­sul­tant on Su­per­fund cleanups.

“No­body knows what Pruitt means by ‘back to basics,’” he said. “If it means re­quir­ing air per­mits, wa­ter per­mits, clean­ing up Su­per­fund sites — that’s great, we want to do that. But if ‘back to basics’ means for­get­ting about cli­mate change, we’re go­ing to fail.”

Those con­cerns have also been raised within the EPA. On March 28, Michael Cox, a long­time cli­mate change ex­pert for the agency, helped lead a work­shop on how the cli­mate might af­fect the cleanup of the Duwamish. Three days later, Cox re­tired — and made his feel­ings known in a blis­ter­ing open let­ter to Pruitt that was cir­cu­lated widely within the agency and even­tu­ally made it to the news me­dia.

“You will con­tinue to un­der­mine your cred­i­bil­ity and in­tegrity with EPA staff, and the ma­jor­ity of the pub­lic, if you con­tinue to ques­tion this ba­sic sci­ence of cli­mate change,” Cox wrote.

In an in­ter­view this month, Cox said pri­or­i­tiz­ing Su­per­fund cleanups could not be sep­a­rated from ac­cept­ing cli­mate sci­ence.

“If we’re spend­ing hun­dreds and hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars on cleanups, I sure hope we’re look­ing out 50, 60, 70 years to make sure they are re­silient to the chang­ing cli­mate,” he said. “Why in the heck would we spend close to half a bil­lion dol­lars on some­thing that’s not go­ing to stand up over time? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Dave Schuchardt, the Su­per­fund pro­gram man­ager for Seat­tle Pub­lic Util­i­ties, was among dozens of fed­eral, state and lo­cal of­fi­cials who at­tended the March work­shop. Schuchardt said in an in­ter­view that stronger storm and river flows pro­jected un­der cli­mate change can “scour” away at lay­ers of soil in­tended to seal in tox­ins.

“As we work through that set of de­ci­sion points, we’ll want to con­sider how this par­tic­u­lar river might be af­fected by cli­mate change and how it might or might not af­fect the scour­ing sit­u­a­tion,” Schuchardt said.

EPA of­fi­cials in Washington did not re­spond to re­peated re­quests for com­ment for this story.

Dag­mar Cronn, who lives in a house over­look­ing the Duwamish, spent two years watch­ing Boe­ing spend mil­lions re­mov­ing waste from the river. She said she was pleased with the work, even as she has seen the river wash away trees on her bank and erode her prop­erty.

But Cronn, 70, also imag­ined un­prece­dented sea lev­els and storm f lows churn­ing the riverbed and the tox­ins it con­tains. “They could all be picked up and car­ried God knows where,” she said.

Rob Ho­takainen Getty Images

A STRETCH of the Duwamish River in Seat­tle is listed as a Su­per­fund site. Some fear the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sis­tance to cli­mate sci­ence threat­ens to undo mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar cleanup ef­forts na­tion­wide.

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