The tragic situation in the Midwest continues to unfold more than two weeks after a bomb cyclone brought in snow that eventually melted, triggering floods that destroyed farms and threatened tribal communities. The latest areas under scrutiny are Superfund sites, whose toxic pollutants can be spread far and wide by floodwaters.
Currently on the radar for federal and state officials are seven Superfund sites and a landfill across Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri, states that are still experiencing some minor to major flooding as of Thursday. These are some of the most contaminated sites in the U.S., and when floodwaters hit them, they can become major threats to human and environmental health if their pollutants travel off site, as was seen in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
“Superfund sites contain some of the most dangerous chemicals known to humankind,” Jacob Carter, a research scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, told Earther.
That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency is now monitoring a bunch of Superfund sites closely, although so far, it seems to think all of them are doing okay.
The EPA has taken action on two Superfunds in particular, it announced Tuesday: Nebraska Ordnance Plant, a former munitions production plant in Mead, Nebraska, and Conservation Chemical Corporation in Kansas City, Missouri, which used to store chemicals. The agency hasn’t spotted any contaminant releases at either, but floodwaters did hit them hard.
The EPA told Earther it also flagged another two sites in Iowa with water on the property that didn’t require action—the Railroad Avenue Groundwater Contamination Site in West Des Moines and the Mid-America Tanning Company Site near Sergeant Bluff. The Lawrence Todtz Farm Site in Iowa wasn’t flooded, but it’s been made inaccessible due to the flooding, so the EPA is also monitoring it. And the EPA, in coordination with state environmental agencies, is keeping tabs on another two Superfund sites in Nebraska where the flooding has paused clean up activities, as well as a landfill in the City of St. Joseph in Missouri that isn’t a Superfund.
The Nebraska Ordnance Plant, which sits in the state’s still slightly-flooded southeast corner, has its soil and groundwater contaminated with potentially carcinogenic substances like trichloroethene (or TCE), as well as explosives. The facility saw its groundwater treatment plant and extraction wells, which help remove the TCE, temporarily shut down because authorities couldn’t access them and to avoid any treated water from mixing with the floodwaters. They are all back up and running now.
This is only one of the facilities the state of Nebraska is monitoring. Others will still require close attention as the floodwaters recede—especially if anything strange turns up in the state’s drinking water.
“Right now, a combination of flood waters and damaged roads are keeping responders from a few of Nebraska Superfund Sites for inspection. Those sites have not been fully evaluated yet,” Amanda Woita, a public information officer with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), told Earther in an email. “DEQ’s primary responsibility is protecting public health. That includes testing drinking water and assessing other important infrastructure, such as community drinking water wells and sewage treatment plants. The department is in that phase right now.”
Back in Missouri, the Conservation Chemical Corporation’s soil and groundwater are also contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals like benzene and TCE. The site experienced flooding, but the EPA reports that it didn’t stop its clean-up operations in response. Instead, more groundwater was extracted to help keep pace with the floodwaters.
Half of Missouri’s St. Joseph City Landfill has become flooded, according to Brian Quinn, the information officer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. He told Earther in an email that the non-hazardous landfill was last inspected in January 2018, and the department will conduct another investigation once the waters recede to make sure the asphalt and soil cap covering the garbage is still in place.
All in all, the EPA hasn’t issued any public health alerts or advisories in wake of these floods, the agency told Earther. But there could still be trouble as the floodwaters migrate farther down the Mississippi River in Missouri. John Hickey, the executive director of the state’s Sierra Club chapter, is worried that the many coal ash disposal sites in the eastern portion of the state along the Mississippi could pose a threat if floodwaters breach them. Coal ash landfills and ponds often contain heavy metals like lead and mercury, which are hazardous to human health. Similar flooding concerns were raised in North Carolina in wake of Hurricane Florence last year.
But the Superfund sites that have already experienced flooding worry Hickey, too.
“When you have these floods, you have debris and mud and silt left over, so whatever pollution is in the river doesn’t stay in the river,” Hickey told Earther. “It’s going to stay behind as the waters recede and be in the street, in the playground, in the person’s basement, what have you.”
Americans experienced that reality firsthand in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey damaged 13 Superfund sites in Texas, leading to mass contamination from one site alone. It took the EPA eight months to begin cleaning up that site, the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, and cleanup is slated to go on another year or more. Then, there was Hurricane Maria, which flooded a lead-contaminated Superfund in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, leaving residents worried about contamination long after the natural disaster.
As Carter noted, low-income communities and people of color tend to be closest to these facilities, so they’re the most at risk.
“These are some of the most disenfranchised communities in the United States,” he told Earther. “[They] don’t have a ton of power in the United States, and they will be the ones impacted by this flooding at Superfund sites.”
The EPA is well aware of the threat that flooding—which is set to intensify in the Midwest in a warmer world—poses to these sites. Its Climate Adaptation Plan published in 2014 makes this clear: “Inundation and flooding may lead to transport of contaminants through surface soils, ground water, surface waters, and/or coastal waters.”
Former President Barack Obama issued an executive order that would’ve required all federal departments, including those that manage Superfunds, prepare for future flood risks. President Donald Trump, predictably, rescinded it. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s spring flood outlook, heavier than usual rainfall is set to bring “historic, widespread” flooding to the Midwest through May.
Whether or not the latest bout of floods caused any Superfund sites to spread their contaminants, it seems clear these sites will only become more vulnerable. We better ready up.
Correction: An earlier version of this post indicated that eight Superfund sites have dealt with floodwaters. One of those sites, a landfill, is not actually a Superfund. The text and headline have been updated accordingly. We have also updated to clarify that the Nebraska Ordnance Plant was shut down to avoid treated water from mixing with floodwaters in addition to access issues.