Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Misinformation, pioneers, & more hurricanes

As I write this, Hurricane Irma is barreling towards Florida. Early Wednesday, the storm slammed the Caribbean islands of Barbuda, St. Martin, and Anguilla. As of Thursday morning, nearly a dozen people were confirmed dead, with that number expected to rise. About 95 percent of buildings in Barbuda were destroyed. Communication systems were knocked down, so it’s still difficult to know the extent of the damage. The storm skirted Puerto Rico, but left a million people without power.

Irma is the largest, most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, with winds of up to 185 miles per hour. While Harvey was still drenching the region in rain last week, meteorologists warned that Irma could be even stronger; it was quickly upgraded to a Category 5 storm. It is projected to reach Florida by this weekend, so Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and ordered evacuations from the Keys and South Florida. At the same time, two other hurricanes — Jose and Katia —are gaining steam in the Atlantic Basin.

The threat of these storms is dangerous enough, but as we’re seeing in Texas and across the world in Nepal and Bangladesh, the risks that come after initial flooding may be even greater: disease, pollution, and contamination are rampant and difficult to control; damaged chemical, oil, and gas facilities can harm water and air quality. Near Houston, officials launched controlled burns to take care of exploding chemicals at the Arkema plant. The Associated Press reported on Sept. 3 that 13 of 41 toxic Superfund sites in Texas were flooded by Harvey. The AP visited seven and reported that the “EPA had not yet been able to physically visit the Houston-area sites.” The EPA confirmed this information, arguing that the sites were not accessible. But the reporters reached most by foot or vehicle, and used a boat to get to one of them.

Across the country, there are hundreds of Superfund sites, which are polluted areas that require long-term cleanup because hazardous materials have contaminated land or water. For instance, North Birmingham has a site full of lead, arsenic, and other toxins from former coke oven battery plants; Timber operations in Picayune, Mississippi contaminated groundwater in the 1990s. Since 1980, the EPA has had a Superfund program to monitor and maintain these cleanup efforts.

Much of the attention has focused on Houston’s petrochemical industry and the harm flooding could do because of it. But this is not a problem that starts or ends with Harvey — Superfund sites around the region, including dozens along the coasts and other waterways, have the potential to flood easily. The map and database below, ToxicSites, shows their locations. It was made in 2015 by an artist and a former EPA employee.

Several Superfund sites in South Florida are in the direct path of Irma, including a former Florida Petroleum Resources site that is being monitored for groundwater contamination in Broward County, and a former recycled drum facility near the Miami airport that is filled with carcinogens. The EPA identified approximately 23 Superfund and oil sites in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, there are oil, coal, and gas power plants dotting waterways and coasts, plus many chemical storage facilities as well. If these sites flood, they could plague communities long after waters recede.

There’s yet another layer of risk added to all this: misinformation, straight from the government. When the AP reported on the Texas Superfund sites, the EPA took a page from President Trump’s book and put out a statement attacking journalist Michael Biesecker. The agency attempted to discredit what it claimed was a “misleading” story, and bizarrely called the reporting “yellow journalism.” Despite the false accusations, the agency is taking action to ensure the same problems don’t occur during Irma: EPA Region 4, which oversees the Southeast, talked specifically about the importance of monitoring Superfund sites in a recent press release.

These types of misleading claims haven’t stopped with Houston. Rush Limbaugh is telling his radio listeners that Irma is part of a vast conspiracy and there’s no real need to worry. Florida Gov. Rick Scott still won’t admit climate change is real. Trump acted surprised that Irma “looks like” the largest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic. He credited “his team” for their work in Texas and Florida, but is still unraveling policies that could curb global warming.

Hopefully, Irma’s worst-case scenario won’t come to pass. But this is just the beginning of extreme weather events like it — and storm surge, overflowing toxic waste sites, and chemical explosions aren’t the only things to be aware of. The Trump administration set a precedent during its first major natural disaster, and it is one that is likely to continue: a widespread effort to downplay what the public is seeing ever more clearly.

Stories worth your time

Juanita Greene was a pioneering environmental activist and reporter. According to her obituary in the Miami Herald, she “bullied the newspaper’s publishers” into creating an environmental beat in 1969. Later in life, she helped lead Friends of the Everglades and encouraged the organization to file lawsuits that resulted in the state’s plan to clean up the Everglades. She also played a big role in creating Biscayne National Park.

In the 1910s, a superhighway was planned to memorialize Confederates. It was never fully constructed, but the Atlantic tracks how the Jefferson Davis highway has left its mark across the country, from Virginia to Arizona.

The mayor of Tangier Island, Virginia, received a flood of nasty letters and comments after he asked Trump for help with his sinking island but said he didn’t necessarily believe in climate change. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine visited to talk about it. “That’s just not productive,” Kaine told the Washington Post. “That’s not the way we think. This is a community where — look, this is not the most Democratic place in Virginia, ya know?”

North Carolina researchers are preparing to publish a report on how military bases are preparing for sea level rise and extreme weather influenced by climate change. Coastal Review Online looks at how one Marine Corps base has been studying and planning.

The New York Times gave some well-deserved attention to Bitter SouthernerScalawag (which also has a great newsletter), and other regional publications working to shift the narrative about the South. “The demographics are changing,” said Alysia Nicole Harris, an editor in chief of Scalawag. “And ultimately, we believe that the South is going to be the voice that emerges to lead this conversation about trauma and healing, because here is where the trauma was the thickest.”

News flying under the radar 

A new federal review says that the drought conditions that led to the devastating fire in Great Smoky Mountains may be the new normal for the park. For context, read my story from last year on the rise of wildfires in the Southeast.

Trump nominated the former chief executive of Rhino Resources — a coal company that repeatedly clashed with federal regulators under the Obama administration — as the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

A new report shows that utility companies in South Carolina were warned over a year ago about the problems plaguing the doomed V.C. Summer Nuclear Station.

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