Analysis: Majority of Flooded Texas Superfund Sites in Low-income Neighborhoods, Communities of Color

For Immediate Release

Analysis: Majority of Flooded Texas Superfund Sites in Low-income Neighborhoods, Communities of Color

HOUSTON - A majority of polluted Superfund sites flooded in Texas by Hurricane Harvey are in low-income neighborhoods or communities of color, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Today’s analysis found that nine of the 16 Superfund sites reported flooded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Associated Press are in communities where the majority of residents are people of color, low-income or both.

The potential overflow of toxic chemicals from inundated Superfund sites — designated by the federal government as the most hazardous polluted areas in the nation — poses contamination risks to surrounding floodwater, soil and people. Yet EPA response personnel did not visit many flooded sites for days, even though they were accessible. 

“These flooded sites are a toxic threat to people living nearby, and the EPA’s slow response to this crisis compounds the risks,” said John Fleming, a staff scientist at the Center’s Climate Law Institute. “This situation is horribly unjust to people of color and low-income communities already bearing an unfair pollution burden. Hurricane Harvey unleashed a risk to these neighborhoods that shows how climate change will magnify public-health disparities.”

There are 82 Superfund sites in the coastal counties in Texas affected by Harvey, which generated extreme flooding driven partly by climate change. According to the Center’s analysis, 60 of these polluted sites — or 73 percent — are located in communities that are predominately low-income or people of color.

Harris County alone has 50 Superfund sites, the most of any county in Texas. Neighborhoods with Superfund sites in this county are on average 79 percent people of color and 42 percent low-income residents.

The potential release of Superfund contaminants like perchloroethylene and chlorinated hydrocarbons poses long-term health risks for residents, many of whom have just lost loved ones, homes and pets because of the storm. The badly flooded Highlands Acid Pit in the Houston area, for example, was used by the petroleum industry as a dump site for toxic sludge and sulfuric acid.

The Harvey crisis comes at a time of turmoil for the EPA, which has lost 400 employees since Aug. 31. The Trump administration has pushed for deep cuts at the agency, which is now headed by Scott Pruitt, a close ally of the oil industry.

“Harvey’s toxic fallout is an environmental-justice issue the EPA is increasingly ill equipped to handle,” Fleming said. “This poorly led agency is driving off its best and brightest, even as environmental threats from pollution are multiplied by extreme weather.”

Below are maps displaying the Superfund sites among coastal counties affected by Harvey that reflect sociodemographic data.

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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