By Leila Waid.
Climate change is one of the leading environmental challenges facing our world today. This will wreak havoc on all aspects of society and in some instances it already has from increasing droughts and wildfires to stronger storms and hurricanes. But one consequence of climate change that gets overlooked is its effects on toxic waste sites.
Toxic waste sites are those where the waste disposed is dangerous to human health. Waste is defined as being hazardous when it “may leach hazardous concentrations of toxic substances into the environment when disposed.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies such hazardous locations as a Superfund site. Currently, there are 1,336 active Superfund sites – meaning there is still toxic waste present at the site. There are also 38 proposed locations that could become a Superfund site.
These Superfund sites can be found in almost every state, excluding only North Dakota. The Northeast region of the country has the highest concentration of waste sites – with New Jersey coming in at number 1 with a total of 115 sites. On the West Coast, California has the most at 96 sites.
How can climate change impact all these different waste sites? One example is that flooding and heavy rain can free debris from coal operations that would then contaminate the groundwater in surrounding areas. That contamination can then further spread through storm surges or rising sea levels. After that has happened it becomes more difficult to track and clean the toxins.
Wildfires are another concern for toxic waste sites. For example, California has a Superfund site with extremely high levels of asbestos. A “worst-case” scenario for this site includes a scenario where the wildfire smoke carries off the asbestos to hundreds of miles away – impacting thousands of people in the vicinity who might inhale the toxin-contaminated smoke.
What can you do to act on this issue today? Contact your representative and let them know you support bill H.R. 1444, titled Preparing Superfund for Climate Change Act of 2023. The bill would require that clean-up efforts consider the impacts of climate change when deciding the proper clean-up techniques.