ecology + justice + culture in the american south

Toxic sites, suffocating oceans, & lavender farms

More than 2,500 chemical sites are in flood-prone areas around the country, according to a recent New York Times analysis. They dot the landscapes of every state, with many of the highest-risk ones—there are 1,400—across the South and along coastal areas.

The evidence that these sites are getting more dangerous to human and environmental health as the climate changes is piling up: a hurricane triggered the release of phosphoric acid in White Springs, Florida; heavy rainfall inundated a plastics plant in Alabama that caused 4,500 pounds of sodium hydroxide to leak into a waterway; chemical production is expanding along the Gulf coast as plastic U.S. production increases.

The list doesn’t even include Superfund sites—an entirely different beast. According to a2017 Associated Press investigation, 2 million Americans live within a mile of 327 Superfund sites at risk of flooding or sea level rise. Superfund sites are highly contaminated areas of land that the EPA is responsible for managing and cleaning up. In Florida alone, there are more than 50. The lowest-lying one is in Homestead, and it would take only “about a foot of water” to flood the 2,000-acre Air Force base, according to an AP reporterwho worked on the investigation. Superfund sites were flooded by Hurricane Harvey, as well as in the Southeast and Puerto Rico during Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year. There’s even one outside of my city, Louisville, that’s at risk of flooding.

The analyses, while alarming, are based on flood zone data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and EPA that are quickly becoming outdated as the climate changes and flood zones—both on the coast and inland—grow and shift. In addition, the EPA uses unreliable data for its pollution estimates. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt hasemphasized the issue of cleaning up Superfund sites, and has removed seven sites from the list within the last year, but critics say his plans have made no mention of the risks of climate change or flooding.

Last week, President Trump released a budget proposal that would eliminate funding for the Chemical Safety Board, which has been investigating major chemical explosions, leaks, and accidents since it was established in 1998 as part of amendments to the Clean Air Act. The agency has a budget of $11 million, and is run by engineers and experts that make safety recommendations. According to Bloomberg, the U.S. sees more than 1,000 major industrial chemical accidents each year. There are no federal laws, and few state laws, that govern how sites in floodplains take precautions, and part of that likely has to do with the fact that the U.S. chemical industry is worth more than $800 billion and employs hundreds of thousands of people. 

“Chemical site” is such a vague term—it’s difficult to understand what could constitute such an area, or how it could be cleaned up. Of course, we use it so often because it’s much less complicated than the actual chemicals: there’s polyethylene, manufactured using a natural gas liquid to make bottles and containers; production in the U.S., especially along the Gulf Coast, is expected to increase by 75 percent over the next five years. There’s Gen X, a chemical used to make Teflon that officials believe has been polluting drinking water in North Carolina for years. There are fertilizers that have excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen. There’s sulfur dioxide, which exploded into the air after Hurricane Harvey slammed a Texas chemical plant.

Despite how daunting this all seems, or however outdated the data is, it’s critical to put numbers on how many sites could be in danger. For decades, the public realized these risks only after a chemical plant bursts into flames, or a facility floods and contaminates an entire region’s drinking water. 

It’s oft forgotten, but each of those dots on the NYT map, each of those Superfund sites that rarely gets called by name, resides in an ecosystem or community that knows more about what’s going on than we give them credit for. During an interview earlier this week, I was reminded of this when I asked a woman from Eastern Kentucky about water contamination in her community. She named five or six relatives who had cancer, and others who died of it. But there haven’t been any formal studies to back up her anecdotes. She said something that I’ve heard so many times in my career, I can’t count them all: “We just know it’s happening.” 

The most shocking news isn’t so shocking to people who live it everyday. There may not always be accurate data, but there are always stories. So if you have one, tell me. I’m interested to hear about your experiences or concerns about chemical sites in the South at risk of flooding or other climate-related events. Email me at southerlymag@gmail.com.


Stories worth your time

Officials want to elevate the lowest, most flood-prone road in a part of Key Largo and in a low-lying neighborhood of Big Pine Key, the  Miami Herald reports. It’s a small project, but it holds weight: it’s the first road project in the Keys designed for sea level rise adaptation.

Construction on the Sabal Trail Pipeline, which would carry natural gas through Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, will continue for now after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit failed to issue a mandate that could have shut it down. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission completed a court-ordered analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, as E&E News reports, but earlier this week, had asked for a delay of the ruling.

I wrote for The Daily Beast about the massive growth of dead zones in America’s waterways—particularly along the Gulf Coast—and how agriculture industry interests have made sure there are no policies in place to address them. “In the two-year policy cycle this country works on,” one scientist and former NOAA official told me, “it’s hard to get people to bite the bullet when they can’t see the results.”


News flying under the radar

People in West Virginia are growing lavender on old strip mining sites, in hopes that the farms can help the state have a more steady income as the coal industry wanes.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality rejected an operating permit for ahog farm because C&H Hog Farms didn’t conduct a study on groundwater or develop an emergency action plan. The company has been operating on an indefinite extension of its expired permit.

The Consumer Energy Alliance, a Houston-based lobbying group that reportedly has ties to Canadian tar sands industry interests, is fueling a campaign in Kentucky to pass House Bill 227, which would cut credits utilities pay solar panel owners for extra electricity they produce.

Leave a Reply