Report: Colorado’s Superfund sites among those threatened by climate change

Five of 20 sites in the state are in areas vulnerable to fires and flooding

Warning sign posted at contaminated Superfund site. (Photo via EPA.gov)
Warning sign posted at contaminated Superfund site. (Photo via EPA.gov)

WASHINGTON — Five of the most contaminated sites in Colorado are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a new report from a government watchdog agency.  

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent agency that works for the U.S. Congress, assessed how impacts of climate change — including flooding, storm surge, wildfires and sea level rise — might impact some of the most dangerous hazardous waste sites around the country. The agency looked at 1,336 “active” sites on U.S. EPA’s National Priorities List and 421 “deleted” sites where EPA had determined no further cleanup was needed. The report’s conclusion lay in its title: “EPA Should Take Additional Actions to Manage Risks from Climate Change.”

Nationwide, about 60% of the examined sites are located in places that might be impacted by the effects of climate change, according to report. The GAO looked only at non-federal sites, which means the agency excluded the roughly 10% of Superfund sites owned or operated by the federal government. 

In Colorado, five of the 20 active and deleted sites surveyed and analyzed by GAO are in areas deemed vulnerable to wildfires or flooding. 

Union Carbide Corp.’s Uravan Uranium Project in Uravan, Colo., is in an area with high wildfire hazard potential, GAO found. The Central City-Clear Creek Site in north central Colorado — where heavy metals from abandoned mines have contaminated drinking water — is also in an area with high wildfire potential. 

The Lincoln Park section of Cañon City, Colo., which has been affected by the waste disposal activities of a nearby uranium mill, is vulnerable to flooding. The Denver Radium Site and the Captain Jack Mill in Ward, Colo., are also at risk of flooding. 

GAO warned in its report that the impacts of climate change could pose risks to public health by spreading pollution from such sites. The agency pointed to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when an unprecedented amount of rainfall dumped on Houston, damaging Superfund sites and releasing toxic materials. 

According to GAO, EPA’s strategic plan from 2018 to 2022 “does not include goals and objectives related to climate change or discuss strategies for addressing the impacts of climate change effects.” EPA officials interviewed by GAO said that the agency doesn’t always include climate change when it’s assessing risks at Superfund sites. The agency is recommending that the EPA integrate climate information at the site level “to ensure long-term protection of human health and the environment.”

Under the Trump administration, the EPA has rolled back many of the Obama administration’s policies to address climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Trump EPA told GAO it believes the Superfund program adequately considers the risks of severe weather events. 

Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Monday expressing concern over GAO’s findings and over EPA’s response. 

“We believe that EPA’s refusal to implement GAO’s recommendations could result in real harm to human health and the environment as the effects of climate change become more frequent and intense,” the lawmakers wrote. They asked EPA to answer a series of questions by next month about how it plans to address the risks climate change poses to Superfund sites.

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