HOUSTON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thirteen Superfund sites, heavily contaminated former industrial zones, in Texas were flooded or damaged by Hurricane Harvey, but the full impact on surrounding areas was not immediately clear, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Saturday.
The announcement came amid rising concern about the health risks posed by Harvey’s record floodwaters, which contain a toxic soup of chemicals, oil and bacteria from Houston’s notoriously leaky sewer system.
The EPA said it found the flooded or damaged Superfund sites using aerial images but had been able to physically inspect only two of them so far. Neither of those two require emergency cleanup, EPA said.
Reaching the 11 other Superfund sites could take time, however, because floodwaters have yet to fully recede.
“Teams are in place to investigate possible damage to (the other 11) sites as soon flood waters recede, and personnel are able to safely access the sites,” EPA said.
The Superfund program, started in 1980, is intended to identify and clean up some of the nation’s most polluted sites, which now number more than 1,300 around the country. But it has been criticized over the years for its slow efforts.
The administration of President Donald Trump has proposed a roughly 30 percent cut to the Superfund program’s funding - which has already been halved from $2 billion in recent years - as part of broader efforts to cut the deficit.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said he is committed to ensuring good progress on cleaning up the sites.
Among the sites that have been flooded or damaged, but not yet physically inspected, are the San Jacinto River Waste Pits - an area on the San Jacinto River outside of Houston that served as a dumping ground for dioxins from a paper mill.
Residents and local activists near the pits have blamed the site for high incidences of certain kinds of cancer.
The EPA said in its news release that the pits are contained by a “temporary armored cap.”
“Based on forecasted river conditions, this inspection is planned for Monday, by boat. EPA has dive teams to survey the cap underwater when conditions allow,” it said.
Harvey has also triggered problems at several of the Houston-area’s operating petrochemical and refining facilities. It triggered fires at Arkema’s petrochemical plant in Crosby, Texas, along with a number of minor spills and releases from refineries and terminals inundated by the rains.
Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Will Dunham