From a distance, the inland marsh a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean in Brunswick, Georgia, looks like a broad, green mat broken by silvery threads of meandering rivers and creeks. There’s cordgrass four feet tall, and sea daisies that add a splash of starburst color.
The marsh is home to shrimp, blue crab and sea trout, and it’s the nesting site of Great Egrets. Bottlenose dolphins inhabit the nearby Turtle/Brunswick River Estuary in Glynn County.
But looks can be deceiving.
Beneath the bucolic green expanse, the water and sediment contain toxic mercury and PCBs from the now closed LCP Chemical plant, which produced chlorine gas, hydrogen gas, hydrochloric acid and other caustic chemicals from 1955 to 1994, at what has since been declared a Superfund hazardous waste site, managed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The shrimp, crab and sea trout are tainted by the contaminants, putting local residents who still fish in the waters at risk for cancer, liver and kidney damage, according to a federal health assessment of the site.
Back in 2010, a researcher found “extremely high concentrations” of persistent organochlorine contaminants (POCs) in the local bottlenose dolphin population, with LCP Chemical and other nearby Superfund sites considered potential sources of the contamination.
With climate change a leading issue in Georgia’s two closely watched Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, the effects of a warming planet directly threaten LCP Chemical and 15 other Superfund sites in the state. They could be potentially affected by intensified hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise or wildfires.
The outcome of those races will determine which party controls the Senate and, one way or the other, have a bearing on President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to pass key aspects of his $2 trillion climate plan for transitioning to a green, renewable energy economy.
An investigation into the impact of climate change on 945 vulnerable Superfund sites nationally by InsideClimate News, NBC News and The Texas Observer found that LCP Chemical and another Georgia site, Armstrong World Industries, in Macon, are among 74 sites where the EPA admits that potentially harmful toxins remain uncontrolled and could damage human health.
The Armstrong World Industries site is an old wastewater treatment plant landfill with about 62,000 tons of waste that contained PCBs in concentrations greater than 10 parts per million, the Macon Telegraph has reported. The EPA standard for PCBs in shellfish is 2 parts per million.
The investigation found that 16 Superfund sites in Georgia threatened by climate change were subject to increased flooding. Eleven were also prone to damage from intensifying wildfires, while LCP Chemical and two other coastal sites in Brunswick, Hercules Landfill and Brunswick Wood Preserving, were threatened by intensifying hurricanes.
The pollutants at LCP Chemical are so toxic and potentially harmful that the Glynn Environmental Coalition, a non-profit organization that monitors the LCP site, tasks one of its members, Aaron Bell, to act as a sentry, informing casual fishermen about the dangers of eating the fish and shellfish they catch.
Trump largely abandoned climate remediation
On a much broader scale, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive climate analysis prepared by a panel of scientists representing 13 federal agencies and released in 2018, offers its own warning—about climate change.
It forecasts that hurricanes striking the Southern states would become more frequent and more intense, with greater amounts of precipitation. Sea level rise along the Georgia coast is expected to trigger “more extreme coastal flood events” that are projected to increase in frequency and duration, according to the assessment.
Most relevant in the context of the Senate runoff elections, the investigation found that the Trump administration had largely abandoned plans, written by all 10 EPA regional offices, that factored climate change risks into Superfund planning and remediation.
The plan that includes Georgia, which was written in response to a 2012 Obama administration directive that mandated climate change-related planning across the government, concluded, “Sea-level rise and temperature and precipitation changes are expected to be the most severe and widespread anticipated impacts to the region.”
Jacob Carter, an EPA research scientist who helped develop the data models used as the foundation for the adaptation plans, said that the predictions, made nearly a decade ago, have only become more dire, increasing the threats to Superfund sites.
“The climate change threats are foreseeable and preventable,” Carter said. “There now needs to be a will to embrace the science so safeguards can be put in place.”
The consequences if the plans are not reinstituted and revised could be disastrous, he said.
“This is about how the lives of people will be impacted,” said Carter, who left the EPA in 2017 for a position with the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he produced a study showing hundreds of Superfund sites were threatened by sea-level rise.
“You have to think about how the people living near these sites will suffer if the toxic contaminants are released because of some catastrophic climate event.”
The incoming Biden administration has indicated that all federal agencies will soon be required to focus again on the impacts of climate change.
The LCP Chemical site is one of 49 sites nationally that face triple threats from climate change: They are in 100-year flood plains, regularly flood and are vulnerable to hurricanes, according to data from the EPA and the Government Accountability Office.
These threats make LCP Chemical extremely vulnerable to inundation by sea water, which hastens the release of toxic mercury and PCBs into the marsh and then into creeks and rivers that crisscross the site.
After some dredging of the site was complete, the EPA approved a final remediation plan for much of the marsh that included placing a six-inch covering of sand—called a thin layer—over the toxic sediment. The EPA concluded such a remedy was “generally accepted as reliable containment for contaminated sediment.”
A report prepared for Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit organization opposed to the EPA capping plan, concluded that the caps would be destroyed by hurricane force storms and sea-level rise.
“The proposed cap concepts do not recognize nor address the impact of sea level rise on the long-term effectiveness of these concepts to prohibit the escape of contaminants within the marsh,” said the report, prepared by Phillip Bedient, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston.
Embracing the capping option may have been based as much on economics as long-term protection, said Bill Sapp, an attorney at the law center. In short, the EPA chose price over permanency, he said, noting that removing the tainted sediment would have been much more costly than capping it.
“Cost weighs heavily in EPA’s decision making surrounding Superfund remediation decisions,” said Sapp, who worked four years as an EPA attorney.
“There is a lot of pressure on EPA to get those sites cleaned up,” he said. “So the cost to the responsible parties is taken into account when finding a solution that can result in a Superfund site being expediently remediated.”
Rob Pope is one of two remedial projects managers at the LCP Chemical site. He is responsible for clean-up of the sites where buildings, chemical processing plants and refinery infrastructure were once located.
The EPA is working with Honeywell, the company responsible for the clean-up, to develop a draft working plan to address site contamination and groundwater safeguards. A final plan may be two years away.
The EPA rejected a site plan submitted by Honeywell in 2017.
‘My job Is to raise awareness’
Aaron Bell, a member of the Glynn Environmental Coalition, a non-profit organization that monitors the LCP site, along with three other superfund sites in Glynn County, is responsible for warning local fishermen that the fish and shellfish they catch are hazardous to their health.
The fishermen are people who take a fishing pole to work and stop on the bridge over Gibson Creek and drop a line into the water below.
Bell said he knows some people may be suspicious of his approach. So he dresses casually—khaki shorts, light long-sleeve shirt and cap—and has a folksy way about him.
“The way I introduce myself is with a smile and a ‘What’s biting today?'” he said.
He tries to limit his talk to less than two minutes, knowing that people will lose interest in what he has to say if he drones on.
“This is a way for a lot of people to reduce their grocery bill,” said Bell. “For some people, that means fishing two, three, four times a week, and the exposure can be significant.”
Bell said he explains to people what fish are safe and what the safest areas for fishing are, and then leaves them with a double-sided flyer showing the contaminated waterways and offering suggestions on how to limit exposure to the toxics in the fish.
Studies of the site by the Agency for the Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency, confirmed that the risk goes up with the amount of fish and shellfish consumed, though agency studies concluded that eating smaller amounts posed little danger.
“My job is to raise awareness,” Bell said. “I do not lay responsibility on people for their fishing. I let them know that if you are fishing near the site you are subject to these toxins.”
Semona Holmes, a county social worker, is careful to ask at her local Brunswick seafood stores where the catch of the day was fished. If the answer is from local waters, she doesn’t buy.
“There is too much risk eating fish caught here,” she said. “We know how much the water has been contaminated so we don’t want to take any chances that we are eating anything that could hurt us.”
Yet Holmes said she frets that people who fish the waters for their own catch are putting themselves and their families in jeopardy.
“It’s unfortunate you have people is a position that they have to fish to provide for their families,” she said. “I see people fishing and crabbing because they have to. It makes me want to stop and say you shouldn’t fish here because it’s dangerous.”