Superfund Meets the Reality of Climate Change

What happens when Superfund runs headlong into Mother Nature?  Hurricane Sandy provides a vivid answer. As the New York Times reports today, Hurricane Sandy had a significant impact on the Gowanus Canal Superfund Site in Brooklyn, NY.  The Canal was completed in 1869 and for over a century was the recipient of industrial discharges from mills, tanneries, and chemical plants resulting in what EPA describes as “one of the nation’s most heavily contaminated water bodies.”  Contaminants include PCBs, heavy metals, and VOCs.

When Sandy’s storm surge arrived, it quickly flooded the the Gowanus Canal, causing the heavily contaminated water in the Canal to rush into basements and first floors of surrounding homes.  Noting that the contaminated water was likely diluted by saltwater, EPA’s proposed response action for this release was “cleaning with bleach, wearing goggles and gloves and getting the water out of homes and buildings as quickly as possible.”  Presumably, the contaminated water can be pumped directly to the street without treatment or characterization.

Obviously, PRPs would not typically be permitted to remediate Superfund problems with bleach, goggles, and a pump but exigent circumstances have a way of creating their own rules.  In the end, Hurricane Sandy may reflect the first major intersection between climate change and Superfund, suggesting that we should not delay in addressing Superfund sites, particularly ones at or below sea level.

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