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When natural disasters unleash contaminants, who pays?

Georgia and other states are dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, which is one of the four strongest storms to ever hit the United States since recordkeeping began, according to the Washington Post. With nuclear reactors and superfund sites located all over coastal areas, what happens when storms destroy protective measures, unleashing contaminants into the air, water and land? Who is responsible for the cleanup, notification, and containment?

Hurricane Harvey

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas hard. Widespread flooding devastated Houston, where over 40 inches of rainfall fell during the storm. In the aftermath, there was an explosion at the Arkema chemical plant, and one of the area’s superfund sites, an old paper mill waste dump referred to as the San Jacinto River Waste Pits was compromised.

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits were capped and lined to prevent harmful dioxins from entering the soil and water, which are known to cause cancer and birth defects. The lined pits were capped with rock layers which were washed away by the floodwaters. After the storm died down, residents found shiny globules of liquid mercury along the riverbanks and on the property of landowners.

EPA orders corporations to pay for cleanup

Shortly after the hurricane, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came in to inspect areas of concern. In Texas, the EPA and state environmental partners visited all 43 superfund sites to assess the damage sustained. A short time after assessing the San Jacinto River Pits, the EPA ordered the two corporations responsible for the site to pay $115 million to remove contaminated soil. The companies knew that liner and cap was deteriorating and had multiple instances in which significant repairs were necessary.

Improved disaster planning and maintenance of contaminated areas needed

Hurricane Harvey highlights the need to ensure that those responsible for superfund sites or other locations containing toxic materials have performed their due diligence and implemented protective measures to withstand natural disasters. Failure to fortify containment structures or implement adequate disaster response plans could end up costing municipalities, states and private businesses far more to clean up, not to mention the impact to the health and welfare of the community.

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