June 1 marked the start of hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin. While not welcome, tropical storms, strong winds, and storm surges are an inevitable fact of life for many residents of the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast. As a new paper from the Center for Progressive Reform explains, with those storms can come preventable toxic flooding with public health consequences that are difficult to predict or control.
In Ernest Hemingway’s 1970 novel, Islands in the Stream, he wrote of his protagonist, Thomas Hudson, “He knew how to plot storms and the precautions that should be taken against them. He knew too what it was to live through a hurricane with the other people of the island and the bond that the hurricane made between all people who had been through it.”
Only Hemingway could romanticize hurricanes. And things have only gotten worse. Last month, a study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that hurricanes have become more intense and destructive over the last four decades. Climate change is largely responsible for these increasingly powerful storms, which can in turn yield sea level rise and flooding that make matters worse.
While Hudson may have known how to prepare for extreme weather events, data suggests that as a society, we're not so adept at preparation. Increasing coastal development, population density, and lack of public awareness about flood risks have made coastal communities vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather. A 2015 assessment of local land use plans found that many do not adequately protect areas most vulnerable to flooding, and in some cases, the plans increase physical and social vulnerability to hazards. Such lack of preparedness was a major factor in the catastrophic damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Florence in New Orleans and the Carolinas.
Flooding on its own can be devastating to affected communities for the obvious reasons – among them drowning or contact with debris, exposure to contaminated floodwaters or drinking water, exposure to mold in flood-damaged homes, and displacement. But as if that weren't enough, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey shed light on another hazard. On August 19, 2017, flooding at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, disabled the plant’s refrigeration system, causing organic peroxides to explode. As a result, 21 people sought medical attention and hundreds within 1.5 miles of the plant evacuated their homes.
Alongside alarming climate projections, chemical and hazardous waste releases triggered by extreme weather are happening more often. A 2012 analysis of reports made to the National Response Center, which tracks oil, chemical, radiological, biological, and etiological discharges, found that hazardous material releases due to natural hazards increased in frequency between 1990 to 2008. Hurricane-related releases increased 15-fold from 2005 to 2008, and weather- and storm-related releases rose by eight and five percent during the study period.
Currently, 39 percent of the U.S. population (124 million people) lives within three miles of a high-risk chemical facility. Due to a legacy of redlining, exclusionary zoning practices, and other systematic forms of housing segregation, the vast majority of these people are Black, Hispanic, and have low wealth. After Hurricane Harvey, residents of Manchester, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in the Houston area that has 21 toxic facilities within a mile of it, noticed a persistent foul odor and experienced headaches and nausea, among other ailments. An assessment of household dust and outdoor soil found that residents were exposed to elevated levels of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemicals emitted by oil refineries that contribute to a greater risk of developing cancer.
The new CPR paper, Toxic Floodwaters: Public Health Risks and Vulnerability to Chemical Spills Triggered by Extreme Weather, discusses the impacts of climate change on flooding and chemical spills, the public health risks associated with these events, and vulnerabilities for communities already grappling with chronic exposure to air and water pollution. The paper builds on a report published by my colleague, David Flores, and CPR Member Scholar Noah Sachs, in 2019. Focusing on the James River watershed, their analysis found that 1,000 industrial facilities housing toxic and hazardous facilities in the region are in the most socially vulnerable communities and are at risk of flooding from storm surges or sea level rise. Nearly half a million Virginians live in these communities.
Since it is difficult to control the effects of extreme weather-related chemical spills, experts recommend a preventative approach to protect public health. Unfortunately, neither the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) require industrial facilities to comprehensively address extreme weather and flood risks in pollution prevention and management programs. Furthermore, few states address flood risks in the permitting of industrial facilities.
Whether we like it or not, climate change is upon us. Events of the last decade alone have shown that our existing infrastructure and control measures are inadequate against intensifying storms. In the paper, I recommend several approaches that can ensure better oversight and permitting of industrial facilities: