How Bad Is the Toxic Legacy Left Behind From Colorado's Floods and Other Extreme Storms?

TV news does an incredible job of capturing the immediate, heart wrenching impacts of extreme floods: We all watched in horror as Colorado’s 1,000-year storm, and Hurricane Sandy and Katrina, ravaged homes and businesses.

What TV doesn’t show is the invisible, potentially deadly, long-term toxic legacy these devastating storms leave behind with increasing frequency as climate change intensifies.

Colorado’s flood, for example, inundated vast amounts of natural gas and oil drilling infrastructure in one of the nation’s most intensely-drilled areas. There are more than 20,000 oil and gas wells in Northern Colorado. Thousands were submerged by this month’s floods, along with tanks that store hazardous chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, open frack wastewater pits, and the Baker Hughes oilfield services warehouse in Evans, CO, where potentially hazardous frack chemicals are stored.

Although industry officials noted the contamination risk, they claimed all was well. Colorado Oil and Gas Association president Tisha Schuller told Colorado’s NBC 9 News that, “There were no fracking sites affected by the flood.” The media, however, has published pictures of floating and overturned storage tanks, drill site wreckage, and sagging pipelines, while the Denver Post and Reuters confirm ten oil spills underway—including 13,500 gallons into the St. Vrain River and 5,250 gallons into the South Platte River. (See flooded oil and gas facility photos here.)

The real damage can’t be assessed until floodwaters recede. By then, the harm may be done, with contaminants flowing into local waterways, soils and communities.

Superstorms Sandy and Katrina likewise drowned the Northeast and Gulf Coast in raw sewage, petroleum products, heavy metals and chemicals that gushed from municipal sewers and septic systems, shattered toxic waste storage facilities, broken pipes, and industrial sites.

It’s known that Sandy spread 11 billion gallons of raw sewage across eight states, according to a study by—enough to fill 250,000 swimming pools. Where that waste and the hazardous microbes it contained were deposited is unknown.

After the storm, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested soils at a few  Superfund sites, concluding that no pollution was spread outside already contaminated areas. But the agency admits that most of the New York region’s 246 Superfund sites were only visually inspected after the storm, not tested. So great unknowns remain.

In Louisiana, five years after Hurricane Katrina’s waters receded—floodwaters that engulfed 80 percent of New Orleans—toxic residues remained, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Arsenic and lead contaminated soils persist in and around playgrounds, schools and backyards in dangerous concentrations that far exceed state and federal standards, potentially threatening children and families for decades to come.

The climate change forecast is for escalating deluge, with scientists warning of a warmer, wetter world that carries more moisture in the atmosphere, and more powerful storms. It’s already happening: Between 1958 and 2011, precipitation falling in heavy downpours increased by an astounding 74 percent in the Northeast U.S., 45 percent in the Midwest, 26 percent in the Southeast, 21 percent in the High Plains states, and 12 percent in the Rockies and most of the West, according to NOAA.

Devastating future record storms will surely swamp facilities where harmful chemicals are now safely used and stored. But no one has assessed the potential toxic risks of flooded Superfund sites (some of which, like New Jersey’s Passaic River, are waterways), sewage systems, industrial sites, drilling sites, spent nuclear fuel ponds, pipelines, fuel tanks, landfills, toxic waste dumps, construction sites, gas stations and more.

No one can anticipate where the next 100- or 1,000-year flood will strike, so it’s nearly impossible to predict what poisons might be released, and where they might lodge. But there are ways in which federal, state and municipal authorities could prepare. FEMA needs to vigorously redefine floodplains, using the best models for sea level rise and intensifying storms. The fossil fuel and chemical industries, and others who work with dangerous substances, need to develop realistic disaster plans to protect against release during floods.

When it comes to the potential for climate change-intensified floods to unleash toxic chemicals into the environment, we are in completely uncharted waters. But the time to start planning for the stormy days and years ahead is now.

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