Oil refineries, fossil fuel power plants, landfills and aging factories: Whether they’re active operations or aging hulks, they are among the commercial sites that spewed pollution for years, overwhelmingly in an age without environmental regulations and often at a profit while the public now pays the cost.
But the potentially most dangerous of all may be Superfund sites — places where polluters dumped unabated for decades and left behind toxic legacies so threatening to human health that the federal government has prioritized them for cleanup.
In some places that work is done. But in New Jersey, 114 sites remain on the Superfund list, more than any other state. As cleanup work at these sites here has moved slowly or stalled out, the severe weather made worse by climate change poses a new threat.
As increasingly intense storms like Ida and Sandy douse New Jersey more frequently, advocates, environmental experts and government officials are raising concerns that the pollution contained in the state’s Superfund sites could be released and create public health threats in the wake of future weather disasters. In “Hazard NJ,” a podcast and multimedia reporting project, NJ Spotlight News examines how storms, rising sea levels and other threats from climate change are impacting New Jersey’s most polluted places — and what that could mean for people living nearby and across the state .
Spurred by Hurricane Harvey’s inundation of Houston in 2017, the US Government Accountability Office released a report in late 2019 detailing various threats climate change posed to the nation’s Superfund sites, and the steps taken by the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the sites, should take to deal with the problem.
The GAO report laid out four distinct kinds of climate threats — sea level rise, storm surge, flooding and wildfire — that could stir up and spread pollution from Superfund sites into surrounding areas, or damage the infrastructure and equipment being used to clean the sites. The report found roughly 60% of Superfund sites nationwide face one or more climate threat. In New Jersey, 88% of the toxic sites are at risk, according to Alfredo Gomez, director of the GAO’s natural resources and environment team, who oversaw the report.
“It’s important to understand at each site, like what are the contaminants? Where are they? How are they safeguarded?” Gomez said. “And then what might potentially happen if a wildfire is there, or if there’s flooding from any of these causes.”
The EPA has since moved to adopt the report’s recommendations and incorporate climate change considerations into the Superfund program’s general operations — including new guidance on how to incorporate climate change information into risk assessments and responses at Superfund sites. The most important action taken so far, Gomez said, came in March when EPA Administrator Michael Regan issued the agency’s latest strategic plan, which incorporates climate change considerations into the agency’s goal of protecting human health.
“EPA will consider climate change and weather science as part of standard operating practices in Superfund cleanup projects,” the plan reads.
But Gomez stressed that each site is unique, and he urged the EPA to continue to stay focused on the risks.
“We’re happy to see that EPA has taken action and moved forward,” Gomez said. “But in terms of what’s happening at each specific site, I think requires a little bit more work.”
Until the sites are remediated, risk to public health remains. These maps detail that risk as it relates to the specific threats in that GAO report.
Water creeping up higher and higher along New Jersey’s sea and bay shores is perhaps the most visible impact of climate change in the state. Sea level rise occurs here at a rate roughly twice the global average, with the effects of global warming being compounded by the fact that much of the state is sinking.
“We’ve seen sea levels rise at gauges at Sandy Hook and down at Atlantic City, which have century-long records, going up a foot, foot-and-a-half over the last century,” said David Robinson, the New Jersey State Climatologist. “And the rise is accelerating; the pace of the increase is accelerating.”
Sea levels in New Jersey are projected to rise more than 5 feet by the end of this century, according to a state report published in 2020, and potentially even higher if global greenhouse gas emissions are not cut quickly.
Most of the Superfund sites threatened by sea level rise in New Jersey are in industrial areas along the Delaware River, near the Raritan Bay or in the Meadowlands. Twenty-one sites in the state are projected to be inundated by just 3 feet of sea level rise, according to GAO analysis of data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That total increases to 29 if sea levels climb to 8 feet.
Higher sea levels serve to make coastal storms like hurricanes and nor’easters more damaging, because they give storm surge a head start before rushing ashore.
After reviewing NOAA data, the GAO found that 27 of New Jersey’s Superfund sites could be hit by surging waters from a Category 1 storm, and another 18 that would be threatened by flooding during a major Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane.
The areas most threatened by storm surge generally match the places most threatened by sea level rise, as well as some inland areas along the shore in South Jersey.
Not all flooding comes from the ocean, a point tropical storms Ida and Henri underlined last summer. Periods of heavy rain can quickly overwhelm low-lying areas, especially in urban and suburban communities where layers of pavement and concrete keep the water flowing rather than allowing the ground to absorb it.
Climate change is subjecting New Jersey to more frequent, more intense rainstorms, leaving the state to face this kind of flooding more often.
“We’re also seeing signs that, if you will, when it rains, it pours; that we’re seeing more of our precipitation in large events,” Robinson said. “We’re still getting the small events, but we’re really accenting it with some of these larger events.”
Flooding is by far the most common threat to the state’s Superfund sites, with 83 of them facing at least a 1% chance of flooding each year, according to GAO analysis of Federal Emergency Management Agency data. That puts them in what’s called the 100-year floodplain. Another 51 sites face a 0.2% chance of flooding each year, placing them in the so-called 500-year floodplain.
That’s a total of 134 sites threatened by flooding. Besides the 114 current Superfund sites in New Jersey, the GAO analysis also included 27 New Jersey sites that have been remediated and delisted.
It’s not just water. Climate change is increasing the threat of wildfires as well.
Historically, New Jersey’s wildfire season is in the spring, from late April through May, when the weather is windy and the trees lack enough leaves to create real shade, allowing brush and debris along the forest floor to quickly dry out.
But the state’s wildfire season is increasingly less confined to its traditional part of the calendar. Warmer temperatures and long dry spells in between intense storms make fires more likely throughout the year.
“In the absence of daily rainfall, which we don’t get in this state, you can dry things out faster, with warmer temperatures, and thus the increased threat, on relatively short order, of wildfire,” Robinson said.
There are 80 Superfund sites in places of high wildfire potential statewide. That’s based on the GAO’s analysis of US Forest Service maps. Most of those sites are in the Pinelands, but others are scattered across the Highlands and in grassy areas like the Meadowlands and the lower stretches of the Raritan River.
Jordan Gass-Poore’ contributed to this report. Maps by Colleen O’Dea.
This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight News and republished with permission. More information on Hazard NJ can be found here.