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Rising Floodwaters, Rising Risks: Navigating the Chemical Threat of Climate-Driven Disasters in Pennsylvania

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Public Protections Chemicals Climate Environmental Justice Water

Our changing climate is causing more frequent and severe natural disasters, like storms, floods, wildfires, and extreme heat, threatening the safety and well-being of people all over the world. Vulnerable communities are already experiencing the negative impacts of a shifting climate, but projections indicate that these trends will only escalate during the coming century.

As the amount and severity of flooding increases, so will the unintended release of chemical and hazardous waste from industrial operations and brownfields ill-prepared to deal with extreme weather. Flash-flooding events and significant storms can contaminate local waterways with toxic chemicals from storage tanks and open containers, landfills, hazardous waste sites, and equipment failures at industrial operations. When toxic floodwaters rise, contamination spreads to connected rivers, streams, communities, and neighborhoods downstream, leaving a harmful residue in homes, businesses, and drinking water systems.

With its thousands of large-scale manufacturing and chemical storage facilities along the banks of the Delaware River, the Upper Estuary region in Pennsylvania is especially vulnerable to toxic floodwaters. The region includes portions of Delaware, Philadelphia, Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks counties. It also houses the nation’s largest freshwater port and some of Pennsylvania’s largest polluters, including power plants, petrochemical facilities, and chemical manufacturing sites.

Source: OLIN

In Philadelphia and surrounding areas, the tangible impacts of climate change are deeply felt by its residents, manifesting as more severe heat waves that strain the health of vulnerable populations like the elderly and children and increased flooding that challenges the city’s aging stormwater systems. These environmental changes damage property and pose significant health risks, especially in underserved and overburdened communities that face greater obstacles to recovery. Poor air quality worsens respiratory conditions while rising sea levels threaten homes and businesses in flood-prone and waterfront areas. Increasing heat waves and air pollution compound with a lack of riverfront access, driving residents to stay inside, disconnected from their neighborhoods and communities.

One of the lowest-lying communities — the Eastwick section of southwest Philadelphia, lying 11 feet below the Delaware River — already has firsthand experience of the effects of toxic floodwaters (for more information, see Sidebar: Flood Risks in Pennsylvania). This area is surrounded by two hazardous landfills designated as Superfund sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While the landfills have been closed since the 1970s, ongoing monitoring has demonstrated high levels of heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the last few decades. Exposure to these toxins can lead to neurological damage, kidney failure, increased cancer risk, reproductive issues, cardiovascular diseases, developmental effects in infants, and weakened immune systems.

Since Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999, the area has experienced several major storms, including Tropical Storms Ivan and Charlie in 2004, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020, and Hurricane Ida in 2021 — resulting in flooded neighborhoods with water levels reaching up to five and a half feet, causing widespread and lasting damage from contaminated floodwaters. These communities are still grappling with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and debating what measures to take as climate change continues to drive increases in the frequency and severity of flooding in the area.

Unfortunately, this is an increasingly familiar story for overburdened and flood-exposed communities in Pennsylvania. By analyzing historical records, water flow models, and climate projections, scientists have identified trends suggesting a growing vulnerability to flooding in the Upper Estuary region of the Delaware River. This report seeks to build on this work by providing the first comprehensive analysis and mapping of industrial facilities that may pose toxic floodwater threats to vulnerable Pennsylvanian communities in the region. In addition to examining the threats, our report outlines existing local tools that communities can use to lessen the impact of future floods and demand better protection from climate-driven chemical disasters.

Our Key Findings

In the Upper Estuary region of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania:

  • Over 15,754 industrial facilities and operations, brownfields, and chemical storage tanks are regulated by federal and state programs for the use, manufacturing, processing, presence, or storage of toxic and hazardous chemicals.
  • Roughly 18 percent (2,700) of industrial facilities and operations, brownfields, and chemical storage tanks are located in the most socially vulnerable census tracts in Pennsylvania’s Upper Estuary region. Six percent (169) are considered “flood-exposed” to potential river flooding, hurricane storm surge, and projected sea-level rise.
  • In 2021, industrial facilities in this region reported releasing over 825,400 pounds of toxic chemicals (not including air pollution) that potentially threaten human health and the environment. Roughly one-fifth of the permitted chemicals released on-site included known carcinogens.

Our Recommendations

  1. Build Local Climate Resiliency and Public Health Protections in Response to Industrial Facilities Using Hazardous or Toxic Materials
  2. Focus on Local Stormwater Solutions to Reduce Stormwater Flows Impacting Downstream Communities
  3. Reduce Local Flood Risks and Improve Stormwater Management for Climate Resiliency

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Public Protections Chemicals Climate Environmental Justice Water