Unlearned Lessons from the 'Toxic Soup': Floods, Industrialization, and Missed Opportunities

by Elena Franco | April 18, 2018

This post is part of a series about climate change and the increasing risk of floods releasing toxic chemicals from industrial facilities.

As Hurricane Harvey lingered over Texas in 2017, it created a wall of water that swallowed much of Houston. Catastrophic flooding over a wide swath of southern Texas left towns, cities, and the countryside under feet of water. The floodwaters sloshed toxic chemicals from the area's 10 oil and gas refineries, 500 chemical plants, and 12 Superfund sites around "like a wet mop," according to one resident who lives near the ExxonMobil refinery and chemical plant. The torrential rainwaters engulfed her home, and she was forced to swim with her four young children through a toxic soup that smelled like "a rotten sewer." Their exposure to contaminated floodwaters likely accounted for the skin and strep throat infections her children later developed. Rice University researchers also collected floodwater samples just a single block from her home and found levels of benzo[a]pyrene, a known carcinogen, above an acceptable EPA threshold for human cancer risk.

With climate change and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, we are at risk for more Houston-like "toxic soup" flooding events. We have tried to tame our rivers to keep ourselves dry while allowing industry to build in floodplains and closing our eyes to the risks of toxic releases during floods. Over time, we have seen parallel but uncoordinated efforts on flood control, ...

Threat from Climate-Induced Spills Goes Beyond Superfund and Toxic Release Inventory Sites

by David Flores | March 19, 2018
This post is the first in a forthcoming series about climate change and the increasing risk of floods releasing toxic chemicals from industrial facilities in Virginia. At the tail end of winter, a succession of "bomb cyclones" and nor'easters has brought fierce winds and surging coastal flooding to the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. These storms remind us of the deepening vulnerability of our coastal and riverfront communities and infrastructure to intensifying extreme weather and flooding. This "freakish" winter weather comes just ...

The Ninth Circuit, the Clean Water Act, and Septic Tanks

by Dave Owen | February 15, 2018
Originally published on Environmental Law Prof Blog. Last week, the Ninth Circuit decided Hawai'i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, a case involving Maui County's practice of pumping wastewater into wells, from which the wastewater flowed through a subsurface aquifer and into the Pacific Ocean. The county, according to the court, needed a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for this practice. It did not matter that the county's wastewater traveled through groundwater on its way to the ocean; ...

Implications of the Supreme Court's Clean Water Rule/WOTUS Ruling

by Dave Owen | January 22, 2018
Originally published on Environmental Law Prof Blog. Today, the United States Supreme Court decided National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense, a case determining whether challenges to the "Clean Water Rule" or "Waters of the United States Rule" should be heard in federal district court or in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The answer, the Supreme Court unanimously held, is federal district court, and the Court remanded the case to the Sixth Circuit to ...

Clean Water Laws Need to Catch Up with Science

by Evan Isaacson | November 29, 2017
The field of environmental law often involves tangential explorations of scientific concepts. Lately, one scientific term – hydrologic connectivity – seems to keep finding its way into much of my work. As for many others, this principle of hydrology became familiar to me thanks to its place at the center of one of the biggest fights in the history of environmental law, spilling onto the front pages and into the public consciousness.  Over the last several decades, a pair of ...

New Report: Toxic Industrial Stormwater Widespread, Maryland Enforcement Seldom Seen

by David Flores | November 16, 2017
Those who take public safeguards seriously are well aware of the potential consequences that arise from the dangerous combination of poorly written pollution permits and lax – even absent – enforcement. From construction sites with failing erosion and sediment controls to ammonia and bacteria-spewing concentrated animal feeding operations, our waterways, their users, and vulnerable populations in the pathway of pollution suffer the consequences. Starting today, we add industrial stormwater to the ignoble list of poorly regulated sources of environmental pollution ...

CPR Scholars to EPA, Army Corps: Scrapping the Clean Water Rule is Unlawful, Unwise

by Dave Owen | September 26, 2017
On September 25, a group of Member Scholars from the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) submitted comments on the Trump administration's proposed rollback of the "waters of the United States" rule (technically, the rollback rule has been issued by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but its support within those agencies comes only from the Trump administration's political appointees). The proposed rule addresses the scope of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act – which means, in non-legal terms, ...

Baltimore Sun Op-Ed: Preparing for Hurricanes Should Not Fall to Ratepayers

by Matt Shudtz | September 20, 2017
This op-ed originally ran in the Baltimore Sun. The full scope of the heartbreaking devastation wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma — the human, economic and environmental toll — may not be completely understood for years. As we do what we can to help the victims, it is also time to think about how we can prepare for the inevitable here in Baltimore. After all, Baltimore floods more than most other cities in the United States and gets little help ...

Summer: The Season of Sickness for America's Waters

by Evan Isaacson | August 16, 2017
It's that time of year again. No, I don't mean time for back-to-school sales, last-ditch beach getaways, or Shark Week re-runs. Instead, I'm referring to the time of year when we're once again reminded just how sick our waterways are. Every year around this time, we read about massive dead zones and toxic algal blooms infecting large swaths of our nation's inland and coastal waters. The combination of warming water temperatures and fertilizer runoff during the growing season leads to ...

The Unclean Water Rule

by Evan Isaacson | July 13, 2017
This post builds from an interview with the author for WYPR's The Environment in Focus with Tom Pelton, a portion of which aired on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. One question I've been asked a number of times over the last several years is, "What does the Clean Water Rule mean for the Chesapeake Bay?" With EPA's recent proposal to repeal the rule, I'm once again hearing questions and speculation about what this repeal will mean for the Bay watershed. I ...

Repeal First, Explain Later: The Trump Administration and the Clean Water Rule

by Dave Owen | June 28, 2017
Originally published on Environmental Law Prof Blog by CPR Member Scholar Dave Owen. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers just released a proposal to repeal the Clean Water Rule and to return to previous regulations. The Clean Water Rule (also known as the WOTUS Rule) would have clarified the scope of federal regulatory jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. It was one of the Obama administration's signature environmental initiatives, and it was one of candidate and then President Trump's signature targets. So the ...

Partner Spotlight: A Conversation with Center for Progressive Reform's Evan Isaacson

by Kerry Darragh | June 27, 2017
This post originally appeared on the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition's website.  All month long, MCAC has been highlighting the Bay cleanup plan, also known as the Bay TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load), in order to keep track of the progress that is, or isn't, happening within the Bay watershed to reduce pollution. We recently chatted with Evan Isaacson, policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, about tracking the progress of the Bay TMDL, what more states should be doing ...

Baltimore's Experience May Yield Lessons for Senate as It Debates Integrated Planning Bill

by Evan Isaacson | April 13, 2017
The City of Baltimore is wrapping up an $800 million upgrade of its largest sewage treatment plant. At the same time, the city is starting a $160 million project to retrofit a drinking water reservoir; is in the midst of a $400 million project to realign a major section of its sewer system; and is spending several million on projects throughout the city to manage polluted runoff from its streets and other paved surfaces. And these are just a few ...

Myths, Realities, and the Clean Water Rule Controversy

by Dave Owen | March 06, 2017
Originally published on Environmental Law Prof Blog by CPR Member Scholar Dave Owen. Last Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order directing EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to begin work on a new rule defining the scope of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. The rule, if and when it is finalized, would replace the "Clean Water Rule" released by EPA and the Corps during the summer of 2015. Much of the political rhetoric surrounding the Clean Water Rule has suggested ...

Some Good News: Recent Indicators Show More Progress in the Chesapeake Bay

by Evan Isaacson | February 02, 2017
This week, the Chesapeake Bay Program released its annual Bay Barometer report. Along with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's annual State of the Bay and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Chesapeake Bay Report Card, the Bay Program's report closes out the assessments of the Bay for 2016 (for what it's worth, CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor and I released our own assessment last year). The Bay Barometer is chock full of charts describing the progress (and lack thereof) ...

Assessment Finds Wide Variety in Quality of County Stormwater Plans in Maryland

by Evan Isaacson | October 17, 2016
Today, the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) is releasing an assessment of the plans and progress of Baltimore City and the nine largest counties in Maryland to comply with their federal stormwater permits, a key component of the ongoing effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and restore it to health. The analysis looks carefully at the jurisdictions' past efforts and future plans, revealing a wide range in the apparent commitment and level of restoration activity as they work to ...

Cleaner Waters for Washington at Long Last?

by Catherine O'Neill | August 08, 2016
The Clean Water Act instructs states and tribes to revisit their water quality standards every three years, updating them as necessary to reflect newer science and to ensure progress in cleaning up the nation's waters – to the point where people can safely catch and eat fish. Last Monday, Washington State's Department of Ecology unveiled its long-awaited update, revising standards that had been developed back in 1992. The state's rulemaking process has been marked by controversy and delay, which I ...

Let's Celebrate Some Progress on Infrastructure Investment

by Evan Isaacson | July 05, 2016
For decades, politicians, advocates, and the press have lamented America's aging, deteriorating, or even failing infrastructure and called for change – usually to little avail. Perhaps another strategy should be to celebrate success wherever we see it and spotlight achievements to demonstrate that we can change the situation if we choose key public investments over apathy and short-sighted budget cuts. Just a few weeks ago, residents and advocates in the Chesapeake Bay region heard one such infrastructure success story. In ...

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