Hurricane Harvey’s extensive flooding of the Houston area resulted in massive physical damage that was easily visible. However, it is the less visible damage that threatens lives after the flood waters recede.
The Houston area has 41 Superfund sites. These hazardous waste areas have been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as having the highest levels of toxic chemicals that threaten public health if not cleaned up or prevented from contaminating the surrounding water, land and air.
One of Houston’s Superfund sites that sits along the San Jacinto River was inspected by the EPA following Hurricane Harvey and was declared to be secure. The rock and metal caps were believed to have prevented toxins from escaping even though the area had been totally under water.
But after the local press began asking more questions about this easily accessible site, new EPA inspections found levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the water to be 2,000 times higher than what is considered safe.
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Two weeks later, Hurricane Irma’s wrath brought surging floodwaters to the Beaufort area. And like Houston, many if not all the area’s Superfund sites on Parris Island were also under water.
Several of these toxic landfills at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot are next to salt marshes and tidal creeks. Layers of soil and rock and even a paved road is used to contain these hazardous waste sites. But even the ones not bordering water were most likely flooded when Irma brought inundation equivalent to a four-foot rise in sea level at high tide.
We are told that EPA officials visually inspected the Parris Island sites and did not advise our Department of Health and Environmental Control that there was a problem. However, unlike Houston, no water monitoring for toxins was conducted.
And there is the problem. These Superfund sites contain PCBs, lead, mercury, arsenic, benzene, and other extremely dangerous substances that can cause serious illness. If released by a flood, they just don’t stay on Parris Island and endanger military personnel and their families, they can flow into the Beaufort, Bluffton and Hilton Head Island waters, threatening to contaminate local oyster, shrimp, crab and fish.
These Superfund sites should have had thorough land and water inspections following Hurricane Irma. But such testing takes time, manpower and money, all of which the EPA already doesn’t have enough. Better yet, these sites, like the more than 1,300 Superfund sites across the nation, should be cleaned up so future flooding doesn’t pose a risk to communities, commercial fishing, tourism and recreation.
To make matters worse, the Trump administration has proposed to slash the EPA budget by 31 percent, a reduction that would cripple the agency’s ability to investigate environmental hazards as well as force polluters to effectively maintain their waste sites and clean them up.
To address the lost revenue, the EPA has said it might stop funding the Justice Department’s efforts to enforce anti-pollution laws. This would be a green light to industry to pollute without much fear of being caught and financially punished.
And the odds that any of South Carolina’s 35 Superfund sites being cleaned up will go down because the EPA has said that with even more limited resources it will prioritize sites for cleanup. Experience with federal programs tells us that South Carolina rising to the top of that list to protect our citizens is unlikely. We will live with our toxic waste sites indefinitely.
Congress is now working on the 2018 budget and South Carolina has a lot to lose if the EPA budget in slashed.
Our Congressional delegation, especially Sen. Lindsey Graham, needs to hear from constituents. The EPA should be doing more to protect the health and safety of our residents, not less due to a budget cut.
Let’s protect the EPA budget. The health of our citizens and local economies is at stake.
Knapp is the president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.