Day 6

What happens when a hurricane hits a toxic waste site?

Recent hurricanes have hit dozens of toxic waste sites in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, making some of them more dangerous than they already were.
Winds lash the coastal city of Fajardo as Hurricane Maria approaches Puerto Rico, on September 19, 2017. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images)

by Brent Bambury

Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico's main island on Wednesday, a monster storm packing winds of 250 kilometres per hour.

Maria smashed windows and flattened or decapitated buildings.

Waters rose, streets and homes flooded and the power grid failed.

The damage to infrastructure was catastrophic. Power may not be restored for months.

A man walks on a highway divider while carrying his bicycle in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday, September 21, 2017. ((Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images))

"This is total devastation," said Carlos Mercader from the office of the Governor. "Puerto Rico, in terms of the infrastructure, will not be the same. This is something of historic proportions."

The main island of Puerto Rico had largely been spared last week's pummeling by Irma. But the island community of Vieques to the east was not so lucky.

Vieques took the full force of both Irma and Maria.

Nine thousand people live there and before the hurricanes hit, they were dealing with a crisis of their own — incidences of cancer and other diseases which are among the highest in the Caribbean.

There's a legacy of toxic waste on the island from a now-closed U.S. Navy installation.

Dr. John Wargo, Professor of Environmental Health and Political Science at Yale says Vieques is "probably one of the most highly contaminated sites in the world."

It's listed as a Superfund site, a federal designation that signals the need for long-term monitoring and remediation. And now, after the double barrelled impact of Irma and Maria, environmentalists are asking if Vieques' deadly waste is still contained.

In this Jan. 25, 2007 file photo, disabled and non-live artillery and mortar shells are piled high in an area used for breaking down former explosives for recycling, in the former U.S. Naval Training Range on Vieques Island, off Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)


Proximity to people

Lois Gibbs knows all about Superfund sites. 

She's the founder of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which helps people fight to address toxic sites in their communities.

In 1978, she led a parent's movement in upstate New York, and fought to be relocated after she and others realized their community, called Love Canal, had been built near a chemical waste dump.

Lois Gibbs and her daughter Melissa during her fight to be relocated from her home in Love Canal, N.Y. (Courtesy: Lois Gibbs)

Under pressure, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency in Love Canal.

In 1980, the U.S. government passed the Superfund law in response to the severity of the contamination, and Love Canal was the nation's first site.

The site on Vieques, Lois Gibbs says, "is a bomb test site which has ammunition, unexploded bombs, bullets, projectiles.

"I mean, it has lead. It has arsenic. It has all this horrible stuff. And certainly people are already sick as a result of exposure to it."

Other toxic sites are vulnerable on the main island of Puerto Rico.

"They have 23 Superfund sites," Gibbs says. Among them: a pesticide warehouse, a former pharmaceutical plant leaking carbon tetrachloride, and next to the coastal town of Guayama — which was pounded by hurricane Maria — a giant pile of toxic ash.

"These are leftover coal ashes from the utilities," Gibbs says. 

"Five stories high, of coal ash that could not be tarped in a way that it wouldn't spread, full of arsenic and lead and heavy metals, that is going into that water and flooding all over the island.

"Next to that coal ash site [are] 45,000 low-income minority people."

Gibbs says people who live near Superfund sites are usually society's most vulnerable.

"Most of the people who live near these sites are poor people. Most of them are minorities. They are the bottom of the society as it relates to income.

"And it's really sad, because from generation to generation, the circle of poison and poverty and racism in this country just continues over and over and over again. I mean, this is the most vulnerable population in our society and we are just putting them in harm's way every single day, by not cleaning up the site."

A partially flooded gas station is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 22, 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)


Fugitive Toxins

There are 4 million children in the U.S living within 1.6 kilometres of a Superfund site.

While listed as priorities for clean-up, the sites are still dangerous. Even when not disrupted by hurricanes or floods, highly toxic chemicals can leach into the air, soil or groundwater.

Some research shows increased incidents of illness in neighbouring communities.

And the clean-up process is slow. Gibbs says it needs to happen faster, especially in the face of strong storms the sites are not built to withstand.

"What they do is put a clay cap over the top of them and they say, 'Oh, it's okay.' 

"Well, it's not okay. Not when you have a hundred mile an hour winds. Not when you have flooding that takes out bridges and overpasses. Do they really think that it's not going to take the clay cap off a dump site full of some of the most toxic chemicals known to man?"

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, the EPA confirmed 13 of Houston's Superfund sites were flooded or completely underwater. Gibbs says thousands more sites are vulnerable to violent storms, and politics make it unlikely that many of them will be ever be remediated.

The Brio Superfund site on September 4, 2017 in Friendswood, Texas. 13 of the 41 Superfund sites in Texas flooded following Hurricane Harvey. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

"We've seen it time and time again, going back to Katrina or Superstorm Sandy. They're just not being taken care of. The reason is because the responsible parties — the companies that are responsible for these sites — don't want to pay the money to clean them up.

"And the EPA, our environmental protection agency at the federal level, doesn't want to push those big corporations around because that's how people get elected to office here in the U.S."

Meanwhile, Superfund is running out of cash. Between 1999 and 2013, appropriations were decreased by about a billion dollars.

"Superfund doesn't have any money" says Gibbs. "And this administration under President Trump and [EPA] administrator Pruitt — he wants to cut Superfund by 30 per cent and EPA in general."

"So the orphan sites will get no attention whatsoever."


No one's priority

The organization Gibbs founded, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, says on its website that the government action that protected the Love Canal families was ultimately a political decision, not a move based on the science that showed the danger of the contamination.

Lois Gibbs (Courtesy: Lois Gibbs)

The residents learned that believing the government would protect them from industrial waste was a mistake.

Gibbs predicts the clean-up of waste contamination in Puerto Rico will not be a government priority.

"Why would Trump care about Puerto Rico? They don't vote for president. They don't have any political power or muscle. And as a result of that, nobody is going to really care.

"I'll care. You'll care. Many of your listeners will care of course, but I don't see the federal government jumping on Puerto Rico. There's not enough interest there for them to do that. There's no votes."

"It'll be a sad situation."


To hear the full conversation with Lois Gibbs, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.