New Webinar Series on Toxic Floodwaters: Communities and Advocates Tackle Climate-Driven Chemical Disaster

David Flores

Sept. 25, 2020

An extraordinary Atlantic hurricane season is still underway, one that has seen the National Hurricane Center exhaust its supply of names and resort to Greek alphabet for remaining storms. This month was the worst September on record in terms of the number of named storms, and 2020 overall is second only to 2005’s devastating succession of hurricanes (which included Katrina) in the number of named storms over the entire season.

There's no mystery as to why: Climate change is driving an increase in the frequency and strength of Atlantic hurricanes. And it's doing it at a time when affected communities – especially Black, Brown, and low-income communities – are all the more vulnerable to natural disaster due to the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental safeguards and its reckless response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While Trump is pouring fuel on the fire, 2020’s portent of a future dominated by intersecting environmental and social disasters is made possible only by long-term government inaction and half-measures that fail to address climate change, toxic pollution, and social and economic inequality.

On September 24, CPR and Waterkeeper Alliance convened the first in a series of webinars on climate-driven pollution and chemical disaster. The toxic floodwaters phenomenon only exists because of these intersecting policy failures, and it will take a bold and sophisticated community of activists to achieve intersecting reforms that prevent the harm of climate-driven pollution. Panelists Jamie Brunkow, Jordan Macha, and Victor Flatt are but a few within that community of climate and environmental advocates and scholars.

In this first webinar, panelists drew on their diverse expertise and experiences in the Gulf and Atlantic coastal regions to highlight the particular impacts of climate-driven pollution on water quality and the communities that depend on those water resources. James Riverkeeper Jamie Brunkow shared how his team at James River Association and its organizational and community partners secured state reforms to remediate flood-exposed toxic coal ash dumps and raised millions to install living shorelines that will brace coastal communities from sea level rise while protecting water quality.

Using the Superfund program and its many remaining climate-vulnerable toxic waste sites as an example, CPR Member Scholar and University of Houston Law Center Professor Victor Flatt described how the static nature of pollution regulation is partly responsible for failures to address climate-driven pollution and how broad reforms requiring coordinated adaptation policymaking among different government agencies can be part of the solution.

Jordan Macha, Executive Director and Waterkeeper for Bayou City Waterkeeper, emphasized how subverted enforcement and racial and social inequities in the regulation of industrial pollution are putting vulnerable communities in Houston at greatest risk for climate and disaster harms – the same communities leading the movement for climate and environmental justice from the frontlines.

Even as incidents like the Arkema chemical plant explosion driven by Hurricane Harvey have grabbed headlines (and led to a climate justice movement in the courts), the Trump administration has repealed federal safeguards against chemical disasters at tens of thousands of the largest, most polluting hazardous industrial facilities in the nation. The rollback of the Chemical Disaster Prevention rule unravels years of study and hard-fought negotiation by frontline communities and their allies that led to requirements for third-party inspections, after-incident investigations, and increased public transparency. Trump has also hobbled the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, stripping the Board of its authority to even publish its investigations of often-fatal chemical disasters. The administration’s blind zeal for deregulation at all costs – all of it at the expense of the health of fenceline communities and the environment – has also undermined federal Clean Water protections against chemical disaster. After decades of advocacy and litigation that led to a federal consent decree, Trump’s EPA "promulgated" a rule to address the risks posed by unregulated aboveground hazardous chemical storage tanks – by issuing no rule at all.

Public-interest litigators, affected communities, and their leaders continue to battle this administration’s legally, technically, and morally corrupt crusade against public safeguards in the federal courts while also forging new reforms through regulatory advocacy. Through joint advocacy by CPR, Waterkeeper Alliance, and our allies, we are pushing EPA to adopt the agency’s own proposed provisions for reporting storm and flood risks and to make explicit existing requirements to respond to the risk that extreme weather poses to industrial facilities. In our comment letter on EPA’s proposed Clean Water Act Multi-Sector General Permit, water advocates describe how applicants and regulators must ensure that stormwater pollution prevention controls must respond to present-day and future flood and storm risks.

In late August, in the face of one such storm-related toxic emissions incident, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards advised fenceline residents to stay in their homes, shut windows, and turn off their air conditioners. Affluent communities in Louisiana would surely scoff at such an order, especially under the heavy humidity and heat of late summer. However, shutting windows for fear of exposure to toxic air emissions is a routine concern among Black communities like Mossville, Louisiana, where homes along the fenceline are surrounded by one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical facilities nationwide. At that moment, all eyes were on the BioLab chemical plant as Category 4 Hurricane Laura, one of the strongest to hit Louisiana in the last 160 years, tore through the region and induced an inferno at the plant, which spewed toxic, black smoke and poisonous chlorine gas. The incident drew national attention for a few days, but for local residents, it's not a passing problem. Residents of Mossville endure BioLab’s daily chlorine emissions that number in the tens of thousands of pounds per year, their homes and bodies poisoned by and sacrificed to the petrochemical industry.

Coming up next: Informed by the experience of toxic floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy, the panelists featured in the next webinar in our series (October 20) will focus on environmental health effects of toxic floodwaters and the strategies that community-based organizations are undertaking to prevent flood and chemical disasters in one New York City neighborhood. Register for the webinar and learn more about our panelists Jalisa Gilmore (NYC-Environmental Justice Alliance), Shahela Begum (UPROSE), Ramya Chari (RAND Corporation), and CPR Member Scholar Rebecca Bratspies.

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