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Report: Climate-Driven Disasters Could Inundate Already Vulnerable Southeastern Pennsylvania Communities with Toxic Floodwaters

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Public Protections Climate Environmental Justice Water

Infrastructure investments and key policy changes are needed to prevent heavy metals, “forever chemicals,” and other substances from being released across the region

PHILADELPHIA — Southeastern Pennsylvania communities with high concentrations of landfills, aboveground storage tanks, and other industrial facilities face extreme risks of widespread toxic contamination during flash floods, tropical storms, and other extreme weather, according to new research from the Center for Progressive Reform.

Heavy metals and other serious pollutants are among the many dangerous substances that could be released into the area’s homes, businesses, and drinking water systems during floods, exposing residents to neurological damage, increased cancer risk, cardiovascular diseases, and other health hazards. These threats will be especially compounded in communities closest to industrial sites, which are disproportionately low-wealth and communities of color, and they will only become more intense and more frequent as the climate crisis intensifies.

There are currently more than 15,754 industrial facilities, brownfields, and chemical storage tanks in Pennsylvania’s Upper Estuary region of the Delaware River, with 18 percent of those — nearly 3,000 — in the most socially vulnerable census tracts.

The new report, Rising Floodwaters, Rising Risks: Navigating the Chemical Threat of Climate-Driven Disasters in Pennsylvania,identifies the communities at highest risk and offers community members, lawmakers, and advocates in Pennsylvania with an extensive list of recommendations to avert future disasters and even to reverse damage that has already been done.

“Ringing alarm bells may get you people’s attention, but you also run the risk of scaring or despairing them into inaction,” said Amy Sinden, a Professor of Law at Temple University, Member Scholar at the Center, and one of the report’s co-authors. “It was very important to us that we build out a comprehensive set of solutions that lawmakers and engaged citizens could begin reviewing and advocating for right away.”

Sinden added that the report includes resources for concerned Pennsylvanians to find information specific to their own counties or municipalities and to learn about what policies have worked elsewhere. The multi-pronged approach includes:

  • Banning the construction of any facility that uses or stores toxic chemicals in flood-prone areas. Further, developers building in permitted regions should enter Community Benefits Agreements with any communities that would be impacted by the facility’s construction or operation.
  • Developing green stormwater infrastructure on a widespread scale to minimize flooding. As opposed to “gray” stormwater infrastructure built with asphalt, concrete, and metal, green infrastructure uses forest restoration, natural preservation, and other means to manage flooding impacts.
  • Expanding local climate resiliency and public health protections with specific directives for state legislators, robust implementation of the state’s Climate Action Plan, and increased funding for the Department of Environmental Protection.
  • Establishing a statewide fund for climate resiliency projects, with additional guidance on how local municipalities can access federal funding.

“In the face of climate threats, far too often the tendency is to wait and hope that FEMA responds when disaster strikes,” said Minor Sinclair, executive director of the Center for Progressive Reform. “Here, we know these communities and know that they are at risk from toxic chemicals in flood-prone areas. Yet, with stronger regulations, targeted funding, and active community participation, we can navigate these waters safely and protect the communities at highest risk.”

The full report is available at

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The Center for Progressive Reform harnesses the power of law and public policy to create a responsive government, a healthy environment, and a just society. Read CPRBlog, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, and subscribe to our email list.

Public Protections Climate Environmental Justice Water