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Commentary Energy & Environment

Opinion: Climate Change Likely to Increase Risk of Natural Disasters and Toxic Exposure

An advocate has suggestions for how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Plan, which governs more than 11,000 facilities storing harmful chemicals, could be expanded to account for additional dangers posed by climate change. photo by Kristina Blokhin.

By Jonathan Sharp

The writer is the current CFO at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. The law firm operating out of Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in toxic exposure cases.

Climate change has become a mainstay in public discussion due to its pernicious long-lasting implications that increasingly affect communities around the U.S., particularly Edgewood, Maryland.

Our dependency on fossil fuels has led to irreversible changes that exacerbate the intensity and frequency of natural disasters. A growing cause for concern is the prevalence of natural disasters resulting from climate change.

The latter are unfortunate industrial accidents due to natural hazards like wildfires, tornadoes or floods. Lacking proper preventive measures, facilities impacted by such events can spread dangerous chemicals into the surrounding environment.

Maryland Facilities Are Dangerously Underprepared 

Over the past two decades, the East Coast has seen a progressive increase in hurricanes and tropical storms, which are anticipated to become even more prevalent and linger around longer.

Maryland is situated in a 100-year flood zone and has experienced the associated effects of 75 hurricanes and tropical storms since 2000, including high winds, tornadoes and heavy rainfall followed by flooding. While not as destructive as the hurricanes that plague the Gulf Coast, Maryland communities face similar risks of toxic runoff resulting from high precipitations.

In November 2017, the Center for Progressive Reform published a study illustrating the dangers that local communities experience. More than 900 industrial facilities using or storing hazardous materials operate in the state.

During the review period, 228 of these sites were required to test and report the contents of stormwater discharge quarterly. Only 180 correctly reported the sample testing results, with 65 exceeding acceptable safety levels.

When toxic pollutants like heavy metals and volatile organic compounds leak into the environment during a flood, they’re spread across a wide area affecting wildlife, plants and underground water sources. The contaminants carried by toxic runoff are associated with severe medical conditions like neurological disabilities, reproductive issues, birth defects, respiratory problems and several types of cancer.

More concerning is that most of the facilities covered in the study are disproportionately located in the vicinity of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. On top of struggling with socioeconomic issues like poor housing and low income, tens of thousands of Maryland residents are impacted by the cumulative effects of living near sources of toxic exposure.

PFAS-Contaminated Superfunds Increase Public Health Risks

With tropical storms and hurricanes projected to bring even more downpour across the East Coast, Marylanders are faced with even higher public health risks from potential flooding affecting Superfund sites.

Superfunds are storage sites administered by the EPA that house some of the most dangerous substances known to man. One such area is the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Edgewood at the northern edge of Chesapeake Bay.

Operating since 1917, the base has been included in the EPA’s National Priorities List in 1990 due to widespread contamination resulting from the research, testing, production, storage and disposal of hazardous chemicals. Recent research indicates excessive per-/ poly-fluoroalkyl substance, or PFAS, contaminants across multiple Maryland Superfund sites, including APG.

PFAS were used during firefighting training in aqueous film-forming foam at Aberdeen Proving Ground, contaminating the soil and groundwater.

PFAS are a class of synthetic compounds called “forever chemicals” that don’t break down naturally and pose a severe toxic exposure risk to humans in the event of toxic water surges. Runoff from the base can have broader implications for the waters of Chesapeake Bay, carrying pollutants downstream toward the Atlantic Ocean.

EPA Urged to Improve Risk Management Plan

Taking note of the lasting effects of climate change on Superfunds and industrial facilities, the Government Accountability Office made six recommendations to the EPA.

The suggestions propose functional measures to increase the implementation of climate hazards into the EPA’s Risk Management Plan, which governs more than 11,000 facilities storing harmful chemicals.

The GAO’s recommendations echo a letter addressed to the EPA’s administrator, signed by 70 local and state representatives. Notably, Maryland officials are not among the signatories. The letter’s authors note that the economic and social impact resulting from natural disasters will only increase as climate change worsens.

Consequently, the EPA should seek to strengthen its Risk Management Plan by incorporating a set of pragmatic policies:

  • Preventing disasters by requiring hazard reduction;
  • Better prepare chemical facilities for potential climate impacts;
  • Include comprehensive emergency response and incident management measures;
  • Increase enforceability, corrective action, and accountability;
  • Expand coverage of the RMP program; and
  • Account for cumulative health impacts from multiple polluting facilities and underlying vulnerabilities


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Opinion: Climate Change Likely to Increase Risk of Natural Disasters and Toxic Exposure