Floods. Wildfires. Hurricanes.
All of the above, worsening as a result of climate change, according to experts, could cause additional environmental and human health harm when some of the nation's most extreme weather collides with some of the nation's most toxic sites, according a new federal report.
Tornadoes were not included among the threats, despite one in Northeast Oklahoma that scored a direct hit on a Superfund site and another in Joplin that stirred up a long-buried environmental hazard.
The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office released last week follows a number of severe storms that hit Superfund sites around the country in recent years, including:
• In 2018, a California wildfire overran the Iron Mountain Superfund site, nearly destroying its water-treatment system and threatening a poisonous explosion if flames reached the heart of the mine, the report said. Firefighters used special gear to stop the flames. Operators of the Superfund site have since swapped out high-density plastic pipes carrying away toxic waste for flame-resistant steel ones, but future threats remain an ongoing concern.
• In 2017, east of Houston along the San Jacinto River, record rains as part of Hurricane Harvey dissolved part of a temporary cap on a 40-acre Superfund site, exposing contaminated material. Testing afterward found dioxin at more than 2,000 times the maximum recommended level.
• In 2011, heavy rains from Hurricane Irene flooded a former chemical plant in New Jersey, cutting off power to the site, damaging a flood control berm and flooding impoundments where toxic waste was stored. Water sampling afterward found that no significant release had occurred despite the problems.
The study by the GAO comes after a 2017 review by The Associated Press found that 2 million people in the United States live within a mile of hundreds of known Superfund sites in areas prone to flooding or vulnerable to sea level rise caused by climate change. The AP analyzed national flood zone maps, census data and Environmental Protection Agency records in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded more than a dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area, with breaches reported at two. At the time, an EPA spokesman derided AP’s reporting as “fear-mongering.”
But the GAO report concluded that at least 60% of U.S. Superfund sites are in areas vulnerable to worsening weather disasters — including two in Southwest Missouri.
The Newton County Mine Tailings site that is part of the Tri-State Mining District could pose problems because of the increased likelihood of flooding related to climate change, the GAO concluded. Likewise for the Syntex site near Verona in Lawrence County, where Agent Orange was produced during the Vietnam War.
GAO investigators looked at 1,571 Superfund sites — contaminated locations that according to the EPA exist nationally because of hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open or otherwise improperly managed.
At least 945 of them are in areas that scientists have identified as being at greater risk of floods, storm surge from major hurricanes, wildfires or sea level rise of 3 feet or more, the GAO says.
Those aren't the only storms that hit Superfund sites, however.
In 2008, a tornado that touched down near the Kansas-Oklahoma line and grew into an EF4-rated storm hit Picher, Oklahoma, a town in the middle of the Tar Creek Superfund site. Picher was surrounded by mountains of waste left behind by decades of mining. That tornado killed seven and injured many others.
Ed Keheley, a leading expert on the Picher mining fields, said the tornado hit two chat piles, stripping away loose chat. The concern was such that state regulators, fearing lead-laden chat might have embedded in trees, did not want to burn any of those trees that were knocked down by the storm and instead had them mulched.
First-round buyouts had already begun for Picher residents before the tornado, and there were no studies looking at the environmental impact of that storm, he said.
Three years later, on May 22, 2011, an even more powerful tornado, an EF5, hit Joplin. Unlike Picher, this one missed existing Superfund sites in the region but aggravated a long-standing toxic legacy.
Of the more than 1,000 residential yards sampled in Joplin's disaster zone after the tornado, more than 400 — about 40% — had some level of lead contamination requiring remediation.
"In some of those old neighborhoods, there was chat that had been used in the crawl spaces ... it was used as a bedding material," said Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department and interim city manager.
Old mining waste also had been used to fill and level places outside the mining area. And thousands of trees that were pulled up or turned over by the tornado also exposed much of the fill. After the tornado, chunks of lead — some of it as big as tennis balls — appeared in yards where trees had been uprooted.
A report in Scientific American in 2014 concluded that "extreme weather" resurrected the danger from heavy metals in Joplin and could do the same elsewhere in the country.
"The tornado had no trouble stirring up some of the 9 million tons of toxic wastes left behind (in Joplin) from hundreds of mines and 17 smelters," the report noted.
It also noted there were hundreds of former mining sites and shuttered smelters around the country, nearly 30% of them vulnerable to flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes.
"The potential for natural disasters stirring up forgotten toxics is huge," the late Robert Kantner said at the time. He was a professor at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and leader of the research.
Pekarek said in some cases it was only a corner or small area of a Joplin yard that showed high lead levels, but in other cases it was the entire yard and needed complete remediation. Sometimes excavating the contaminated area for basements or pads for houses took care of the problem, but in other cases, it took more aggressive measures.
"It could have been removed, or it could have been capped in place," he said of the remediation.
He noted that the tornado passed south of the existing Superfund area in Jasper County and north of the Newton County site, and the path of the storm did not get into any of what the EPA calls its "operable units," where remediation is still taking place.
Because of the risk, the EPA also paid for remediation at some parks and playgrounds within the disaster area in Joplin.
So why not include tornadoes in the GAO report?
Alfredo Gomez, director of natural resources and environment for the GAO, said the relationship between tornadoes and climate change isn't as well understood as that between climate change and other kinds of extreme weather, including flooding, hurricanes and wildfires.
That's a consensus shared among scientists, according to Anthony Lupo, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Harold Brooks, a senior scientist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Oklahoma.
"With tornadoes, the picture is very complicated," Lupo said.
"Rainfall is something we have a lot more confidence in," Brooks said. "Our confidence in what is going to happen with tornadoes is really, really low."
There are noticeable trends, Brooks said, and so far, scientists have determined there are fewer days with strong tornadic storms but more days with large-scale tornado outbreaks.
In the 1970s, for example, there were 150 days per year when at least one EF1 or higher was recorded; now, it's closer to 90 days.
On the other hand, back in the 1970s, the country averaged one day every other year when there was an outbreak with at least 30 or more tornadoes; now it is around 2.5 days per year.
"We do not have a good physical model to connect planet warming to that kind of change," Brooks added. "With tornadoes, we just can't make a good cause and effect."
Dioxin, lead and flooding
Unlike the link between tornadoes and climate change, there's little doubt about the link between extreme rainfall and climate change, according to Gomez, Lupo and others, making flood threats to Superfund sites such as those in Southwest Missouri easier to anticipate.
The Newton County Mine Tailings Superfund site includes 300 square miles where lead and zinc were mined for more than a century, and millions of tons of mining waste, chat and rock were left behind, over time contaminating ground and surface water and soils. Remediation so far has included removal of mining and milling waste, contaminated soil and stream sediment, disposal and capping at a repository, and hooking up people on shallow wells to water systems. That cleanup is ongoing.
At the same time, flooding is worsening.
The National Weather Service in Springfield reports that the four highest flood crests on record for Shoal Creek in northern Newton County, and six of the highest 10 flood crests, have been in the past 11 years, including flooding in the region this summer.
Shoal Creek had never gone above 18 feet at the gauge until 2008 and since then has topped that mark four times, including 23.4 feet in 2015 and nearly 23 feet again in 2017.
The United States Geological Survey reports five of the 10 highest floods have occurred on Shoal Creek in the past decade, rating a flood in 1941 as the worst.
At the Syntex site, near Verona, different companies made chemicals used in Agent Orange, a defoliant, and hexachlorophene, and one of the byproducts of that chemical work was dioxin, which was disposed of in the region, contaminating soil and groundwater. Fish downstream in Spring River also were contaminated, according to the EPA. Contaminated soil was burned in an incinerator. The site is identified as covering 180 acres, and monitoring is ongoing.
Spring River, too, has seen some of its worst flooding in recent years, according to NWS data. Five of the 10 historic crests on record at Waco, the longest-serving of the river gauges on Spring River, although far downstream from Verona, have been in the past 12 years. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, upstream gauges on the Spring River at Carthage and La Russell also indicate more severe flooding recently, but the data for those gauges is not as complete.
The GAO report found 51 sites in the EPA's Region 7 (Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska) that have a moderate flood hazard risk, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Other Superfund sites in the region, including the Oronogo-Duenweg Mining Belt in Jasper County; the Cherokee County site around Galena, Kansas; and Tar Creek in Northeast Oklahoma — all of which also were part of the Tri-State Mining District — were identified as having a lower flood hazard risk in the GAO report.
That flooding has grown more severe in the Midwest is widely accepted by many scientists and backed up by records that go back nearly a century.
Lupo said the science on rainfall is straightforward: "A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture."
He also said the Midwest is seeing a swing to more extreme weather events.
"What we have been seeing in this part of the world is a tendency toward feast and famine," he said. "We're getting a lot of rainfall, or we're getting hardly any."
EPA managers of those two Superfund sites in Southwest Missouri identified as being at risk were not made available for comment.
Asked what was being done to prevent toxins at Superfund sites in Southwest Missouri from spreading in the event of extreme weather, officials in Region 7 noted in a short statement that they are implementing around the country what the EPA calls its Superfund Climate Resilience Action Plan, as well as recommendations from various task forces.
They also included in their response a brief statement from Peter Wright, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management in Washington, D.C.: "The EPA strongly believes the Superfund program’s existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events that may increase in intensity, duration or frequency are woven into risk response decisions at nonfederal NPL sites."