When Superstorm Sandy hit the northeastern United States in October 2012, its storm surge reached unprecedented levels, flooding homes, businesses, and seven tunnels of New York City’s massive subway system. Residents of the New York borough of Brooklyn confronted the floodwaters in their basements and offices and found themselves asking what was in the water? The implications of the flood were even more serious for these New Yorkers because the waters came from the Gowanus Canal, one of the most contaminated water bodies in America. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) selected the site for cleanup under the federal Superfund program. During the storm, the canal’s waters, which could have carried sediment contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals, overtopped the banks and reached as far as a city block in all directions. On Nov. 5, 2012, the New York Times reported that “a greasy, oily slick” covered one man’s skin as he rushed into his flooding basement to rescue personal belongings.
In a second area of Brooklyn, New Yorkers faced contamination from the flooding of another Superfund site, Newton Creek. Post-Sandy testing by EPA revealed toxic chemicals in the floodwaters, but the agency concluded that the chemicals were below levels that pose risks to human health. Forty miles away, in Sayreville, New Jersey, Sandy’s floodwaters carried contaminated sediment from the Raritan Bay Slag Superfund site to neighboring playgrounds. Subsequent sampling indicated levels of lead that exceeded the levels deemed safe for residential exposure. See EPA’s Hurricane Sandy response.
Sandy is not the first record-breaking storm to disturb Superfund sites. In 2005, EPA investigated three Superfund sites in Louisiana flooded when Hurricane Katrina, the strongest and most expensive storm in U.S. history, brought 20-foot storm surges across the Gulf Coast. In addition, Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Floyd (1999) triggered flooding of the American Cyanamid Superfund site in New Jersey, causing concerned residents to question the appropriateness of EPA’s remedial plan to cap the chemical-laden sediment and leave it on-site.
The number of Superfund sites in America’s coastal communities is considerable, and the risks to the public from releases of hazardous waste are real. Twenty-two of the contiguous United States border the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and/or a major bay hydrologically connected to either ocean. As of 2010, 39 percent of Americans lived in a county adjacent to an ocean shoreline, a number that is projected to increase to almost 50 percent by 2020. Within 9 miles of these same shorelines lie 289 Superfund sites in varying stages of the remediation process. The five states with the most coastal Superfund sites are New Jersey (55), Florida (40), California (33), Washington (25), and New York (25). In New York and New Jersey, forty-five sites are located within only a half-mile of a coastal area vulnerable to storm surge. See “Sandy Stirs Toxic Site Worry,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 11, 2012.