The EPA Is Pausing Operations at Toxic Sites as Hurricane Dorian Lashes the Southeast

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In response to Hurricane Dorian arriving in the South, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to temporarily shutdown operations at some of the region’s most toxic facilities.

Hurricane-force winds from the Category 2 storm are whipping across parts of coastal Carolinas and Georgia. Storm surge could be as high as 7 feet in parts of the Carolinas, according to the National Hurricane Center. As for rain, we’re looking at up to 15 inches in the coastal Carolinas—all of which could cause “life-threatening flash floods.”

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This is bad news for those living in the storm’s path, but all the water also threatens structures that house toxic waste. The EPA has identified three Superfund sites in Dorian’s forecasted path in North Carolina, agency spokesperson Maggie Sauerhage wrote in an email to Earther. These include the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in Craven County, and Camp Lejeune and ABC One Hour Cleaners in Onslow County. All contain chemicals harmful to human health, including potential carcinogen trichloroethylene and arsenic.

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The agency has also suspended activity at a 24-acre former chemical plant in Riegelwood, North Carolina, a site contaminated with mercury and PCBs, as well as the Able Contracting Facility in Ridgeland, South Carolina, which is a former materials processing facility that has been burning since July. The regional EPA office is already planning assessments—if deemed necessary, Sauerhauge said—at these toxic sites once Hurricane Dorian passes.

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The real concern here, Lee Ferguson, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Duke University, told Earther, is if the floodwaters transport contaminants that may be trapped in soil or containment systems. After all, these Superfund sites are undergoing active clean up, but that doesn’t mean the EPA has managed to remove all the contamination from the sites.

“When you have inundation with floodwaters, it can really expose and mobilize contaminants,” Ferguson told Earther. “To me, that’s actually one of the biggest risks for water contamination from these storms.”

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Once floodwaters mobilize toxins, they can threaten groundwater and even people’s homes and local businesses if the contaminated waters reach these areas. For residents already dealing with damaged property, loss of income, and the outright trauma of such a natural disaster, a contaminated drinking supply or household would make an awful situation worse.

“In that case, that would be a sort of double whammy,” said Ferguson. “Not only do you get the floodwaters, which are damaging enough, but you may also have contaminants that you wouldn’t normally expect to be present in water.”

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And this isn’t a what-if type scenario. Hurricanes have caused this type of damage before. When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas’ Gulf Coast in 2017, the storm damaged 13 Superfund sites, exposing nearby residents to a toxic soup of contaminants. The EPA didn’t start cleaning up any of those sites until last year. After Hurricane Maria, residents in the town of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, worried that a nearby Superfund site had spread lead far and wide as floodwaters rose to the roofs of their homes. When Hurricane Florence brought storm surge and record-setting rains to the Carolinas last year, it unleashed a wave of coal ash, pig shit, and industrial waste.

There still aren’t reports that Hurricane Dorian’s waters have reached any of these toxic sites—and let’s hope it stays that way.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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