Climate Change Threatens Communities with Dangerous Spills and Contamination from Nearby Industrial Facilities

by David Flores

October 18, 2016

To date, climate adaptation and resilience planning efforts on the local, state, and federal levels have largely focused on protecting residential, commercial, and municipal infrastructure from sea level rise and deadly storm surge through such structural practices as shoreline armoring. However, a growing number of advocates are raising concerns about the threat that extreme weather poses to the low-income communities and communities of color that are disproportionately situated near industrial facilities vulnerable to flooding. 

Industrial facilities – oil and gas, manufacturing, chemical, and agricultural – are often sited within floodplains to permit access to water for transport and industrial process and are ill-equipped to prevent hazardous material spills and leaks caused by extreme precipitation, flooding, and storm surge. As a result, neighboring communities are at particular risk of exposure to these dangerous substances during and following extreme weather events. Community members and first responders face not only the immediate risk of contact but also chronic exposure once contaminated floodwaters recede and leave an invisible toxic residue in homes, water systems, schools, open spaces, and wherever floodwaters invaded. 

Last month, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) filed a first-of-its-kind federal lawsuit against ExxonMobil that seeks to prevent future uncontrolled discharges caused by climate change impacts at an industrial facility on Massachusetts' Mystic River. ExxonMobil's Everett Terminal, located near residential communities in Chelsea, is an oil and gas storage and distribution facility that generates large quantities of hazardous waste subject to oversight by the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The CLF complaint alleges that the facility is "vulnerable to sea level rise, increased precipitation, increased magnitude and frequency of storm events, and increased magnitude and frequency of storm surges due to its location, elevation, and lack of preventative infrastructure" and that ExxonMobil has not "taken climate change impacts into account in its stormwater pollution prevention plan ('SWPPP'), spill prevention, control and countermeasures plan ('SPCC') and facility response plan ('FRP')." 

The lawsuit alleges in some detail that ExxonMobil has been acutely aware of global climate change and the "imminence of rising temperatures and rising sea level" since at least the late 1970s but has failed to act to fortify the Everett Terminal or "share its findings to notify the public of related risks." By comparison, CLF notes in its complaint, local government has already adopted adaptation measures by engineering a sewage treatment plant in Boston that will accommodate decades of projected sea level rise. 

CLF significantly relies on Massachusetts' own climate modeling and adaptation planning in presenting evidence of sea level rise and storm surge and to substantiate risk of inundation and spills at the terminal from storms as small as a Category 1 hurricane. But a wealth of other climate and adaptation evidence about prospective risk is available to coastal communities seeking to address unfortified industrial facilities. 

For example, in 2013, EPA reported that there were well over 25,000 hazardous waste generating facilities nationwide that are governed by RCRA, a figure that excludes the tens of thousands of facilities and operators also permitted to transport and receive hazardous waste. While not all of these facilities are located in floodplains, storm surge zones, and exposed to rising sea levels, many are located in close proximity to waterways for transport and industrial process purposes. 

Unfortunately, government statistics provide an imperfect picture of the threat that ...

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