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Wastewater Treatment Plants A Severe Risk To Public Health

Nearly one third of the hazardous chemical facilities in the United States are at risk from climate-driven floods, storms and wildfires, according to a new analysis by the Government Accountability Office.

The federal watchdog reports that more than 11,000 facilities across the nation, including factories, refineries, water treatment plants, have extremely hazardous chemicals in amounts that could harm people, property, or the environment if accidentally released. They found that more than 3,200 of them are located in places where they face damage from sea level rise, hurricane storm surge, wildfires or flooding from heavy rain.

Such events can and have released chemicals into surrounding communities. Climate change may make some natural hazards more frequent or intense, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment.

Climate-driven storms have damaged numerous chemical plants, refineries and water treatment plants in recent years.

The most extreme examples have unfolded during hurricanes. In 2021, Hurricane Ida caused leaks and power outages at facilities from Louisiana to New Jersey. In 2020, Hurricane Laura forced tens of thousands of people near Lake Charles, La., to shelter in place after a local chemical plant was damaged and began leaking dangerous chlorine gas. And, in 2017, flooding from Hurricane Harvey caused massive sewage leaks from water treatment plants, and caused at least one chemical plant to catch fire and burn for days.

Flooding is by far the most widespread hazard, the report finds. Of the 3,219 facilities located in harm’s way, more than 2,400 of them are at high risk for flooding, according to flood maps produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And in some places the risk may be even higher than those maps suggest, because FEMA does not take into account long-term sea level rise or other types of climate-driven flooding.

Insufficient or out-of-date information about weather risks makes it more difficult for companies to prepare their facilities for the effects of climate change.

The facilities analyzed in the new report are located in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. They are concentrated in the industrial core of the country. Nearly 40 percent of facilities are located in the Midwest or Great Lakes regions, and about 30% are located in the 14 southern states between North Carolina and New Mexico.

Due to socio-economics and public policies, socially vulnerable people, including poor people, Indigenous people and Black people, are more likely to live near facilities that use hazardous chemicals. When floods release chemicals into the air, or a hurricane causes a fire to break out, the people living nearby are most likely to suffer from pollution exposure while they are also trying to cope with damage to their own homes.

“It’s a terrible nexus of burden and vulnerability,” says Ana Baptista, an environmental policy professor at the New School. “You have communities that are facing a whole host of burdens in terms of pollution exposure, and they may also have less means to evacuate in an emergency.”

The report suggests multiple ways that the EPA can protect people by requiring the companies that own these facilities to prepare for climate-driven weather.

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Author: Gary Chandler

Gary Chandler is a sustainability strategist, author and advocate. Follow him on Twitter @Gary_Chandler