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From Texas to Florida, toxic sites risk flooding

September 9, 2017 at 4:27 PM EDT
The Environmental Protection Agency said last month that in Texas, 13 of the state's 41 Superfund sites -- the nation’s most toxic industrial waste sites -- had been flooded by Hurricane Harvey after the Associated Press reported about them on the scene. Now in Florida, 54 Superfund sites could be threatened by Hurricane Irma. Jason Dearen, the AP reporter covering the crisis in both states, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Miami.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Just two weeks ago, a line of reporting came out of Houston warning of the environmental dangers lurking at EPA Superfund toxic waste sites and what could happen after a catastrophic storm and flood.

Well, those sites are not limited to Houston. They’re in Florida, as well.

Jason Dearen of “The Associated Press” has been on the same story the last couple of weeks and joins me now from Miami.

Jason, give us an idea of how many superfund sites are possibly affected by Irma?

JASON DEAREN, REPORTER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Well, there are more than 50 superfund sites in Florida alone. In Miami, we have identified with the help of a 2012 EPA internal study, as well as an external study done by two researchers from American University, which of those sites are actually in the flood plain, so the most prone to flooding. And, since Wednesday, I visited six of those sites to see, you know, kind of how they appeared before the storm and what was being done, if anything, to prepare them for the expected storm surges, flooding and winds.

SREENIVASAN: And what is being done?

DEAREN: Well, the EPA told us they were securing the sites. They have staff who are monitoring them, checking in with people on the ground. When we went to them, they were in various stages of cleanup. So, you know, some had been cleaned up, and there’s nobody around.

In one case, I found barrels of contaminated soil and water from one of the superfund sites that were still stored on the site. EPA said that they would be removing those barrels before the storm came when we called them. So, it depended on the site.

Another is, you know, a 2,000-acre Air Force base down in Homestead which is the lowest lying of all the superfund sites. It would only take about a foot of water to flood that. There are communities around there who could be impacted by that floodwater should it be contaminated from the Air Force base.

So, there are a lot of questions about just how these sites will handle the storm surge and winds from Irma.

SREENIVASAN: So, give us an idea of what makes a superfund site a superfund site? What kind of chemicals are we talking about? How dangerous are they?

DEAREN: They’re superfund sites for a reason. They are all dangerous chemicals, some more than others. For example, the site I mentioned, Anodyne, which had the barrels out yesterday, had been contaminated with DDT, and other pesticides, chemical solvents. Many of the sites here in the Miami area had chemical solvents involved, usually in the aircraft industry, used to clean parts, things like that, and those were dumped into soil and down into the aquifer here in contaminated groundwater.

And so, that’s one of the big concerns is when you have a lot of rainfall, storm surge, flooding is those chemicals being transported off the site, off the superfund site, down into the water and into the nearby communities. And so, that’s what the EPA is going to be watching for, they say, and what we’ll also be looking at.

SREENIVASAN: And how do they measure is that, especially if the barrels had been dumped years and years ago. We don’t necessarily know how strong those barrels were, how watertight those barrels were and if the water kind of seeps down there during a flood, whether it kind of picks back up and goes somewhere else or it actually seeps down into the aquifer?

DEAREN: Well, each superfund site is different, right? So, some have contaminate mechanisms for the pollution, like a pond. So, for example, if that were to be breached, you know, that could spread contaminants. Some have a cap of clean soil over old — older, contaminated dirty soil. And, you know, the worry is if there is significant flooding that can be removed and all that commingling and moving off site.

In the case of these barrels, those barrels were new barrels. Apparently, somebody who works on the site told us that they had been filled within like the last month, last few weeks, by crews who were out, scooping out contaminated soil and taking tests of water beneath aquifer.

So, each site is very different, has its own complications, and it will take extensive close monitoring after the storm of each of these sites to see if the contamination has spread. It’s a complicated and long-term project.

SREENIVASAN: As a result of some of your reporting out of Houston, the EPA came back and said to all reporters and everybody else, do not trespass on any of these sites. It could be incredibly dangerous and harmful to your own body and person.

The sites that you went to in Miami, were these closed off areas?

DEAREN: Most of them are closed off areas. One was a private business, and they were clearly marked “no trespassing”. So, as far as we could to those fences, we didn’t trespass by those fences. Others were not fenced off, and there were no “no trespassing” signs. In those cases, I just walked into them and took my photographs and interviewed people who lived or worked around there about their knowledge of the site, and if they’ve been, you know, if people had been in contact with them to warn them about any contamination concerns from the flooding.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Jason Dearen joining us via Skype from Miami, thanks so much.

DEAREN: Thank you.

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