As floods and wildfires intensify, pollution could spread from N.J.'s most toxic sites
As flooding and wildfires intensify across the country, New Jersey — which contains more toxic Superfund sites than any other state — is at the heart of a potential contamination crisis, according to a new report from the federal government.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 945 of the nation’s 1,571 Superfund sites, about 60%, are increasingly threatened by either flooding or wildfires. The report, released last week, was requested by a group of federal lawmakers, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
The fear is that future natural disasters, bolstered by climate change, could damage the facilities that have been designed to keep pollution trapped at those sites, spreading the contamination into surrounding areas.
Of the Garden State’s 141 Superfund sites, including those which are now considered remediated, 122 face either significant flood risk or high wildfire potential, according to the report. Some sites, like the Price Landfill in Pleasantville, are threatened by both water and flames.
Climate change has intensified tropical storm systems, increasing the risk that future storms will bring flooding on the level of 2011′s Hurricane Irene or 2012′s Superstorm Sandy.
There are 27 Superfund sites in New Jersey that could be flooded by storm surge during a Category 1 hurricane, according to the report. Another 15 are threatened by Category 4 or Category 5 storms.
The American Cyanamid site in Bridgewater was used by the GAO as a prime example of this problem. The site is the former home of a chemical manufacturing operation and has left behind a legacy of pollution dating back to 1915.
Cleanup of the site is ongoing, but much of the remaining pollution sits in two waste disposal pools on the site, near the Raritan River. Today, a pump-and-treat system prevents groundwater at the site, which is contaminated with cancer-causing benzene and other pollutants, from seeping into the river.
Irene flooded American Cyanamid in 2011, causing a loss of power and damage to a flood control berm at the site. According to the report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps since Irene to make the site more resilient to future flooding.
The EPA concluded that Irene’s damage did not cause any significant release of toxic substances from the site into the surrounding environment. But the GAO report still uses the incident as an example of how a natural disaster could cause Superfund sites to threaten nearby areas.
Future flooding will come steadily, as sea levels continue to rise. New Jersey experiences sea level rise at a faster rate than the global average, thanks to sinking land in the southern part of the state.
There are 29 Superfund sites in New Jersey that face serious flood risks at various stages of sea level rise, according to the GAO report; 15 of those are places at risk even with less than a foot of higher waters.
The threat of wildfire is growing in New Jersey, too — particularly in the Pinelands — as climate change brings more wind and snow, which spurs the growth of underbrush that serves as fuel to the flames. Warmer average temperatures also allow invasive pests to move into the forests, leading to more dead trees on the forest floor waiting to burn.
There are 80 Superfund sites in New Jersey that are located in areas of high wildfire hazard potential, according to the GAO report. That includes not just sites in the Pinelands — where most of New Jersey’s wildfires occur — or in the forests of North Jersey, but also to urban areas like Elizabeth, Kearny and Jersey City.
Beyond laying out the climate threats facing Superfund sites, the GAO report also examines how the EPA acts to deal with the problem.
The report concludes that the EPA takes some steps to protect the toxic areas from these climate risks, like identifying, monitoring and communicating about the threats.
But the GAO reports that more could be done. Specifically, the report found that the EPA is not doing enough to fully assess and respond to the threats that climate change poses to Superfund sites.
In the EPA’s response to the GAO report, Peter Wright, who oversees the Superfund program, wrote that the agency recognizes the importance of making sure the polluted sites are resilient to “extreme weather events” and that the agency believes it is already handling the threats adequately.
According to Wright, more than 250 Superfund sites were affected by extreme weather in 2017 and 2018 and none of them showed signs of releasing their pollutants.
Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a frequent critic of the EPA’s Superfund cleanup work, called the report “an alarm bell” for New Jersey.
“We have more Superfund sites than any other state, and we are one of the states most impacted by climate change and sea-level rise," Tittel said. "Many of our Superfund sites are near the coast or on streams, rivers, and bays. This is alarming because it means that when these sites flood, they will wash all kinds of toxic chemicals into streams, rivers, and even homes. Storm surges will carry a hazardous witches brew of toxic chemicals.”
Have a tip?Tell us.nj.com/tips.
Get the latest updates right in your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com’s newsletters.