Dangerous, chemically contaminated Superfund sites are peppered across the US, and they are increasingly threatened by climate-amplified natural disasters, be it wildfire, flood or sea level rise. Here is an example of a close call in 2018, representative of the hazard. 

The city of Redding, California, was founded in 1887 in an area that used to be called Poverty Flats. It grew thanks to nearby copper and iron extraction, in the early 20th century, but this activity gave way to dam construction and lumber. A notable mine in the area is that of the Iron Mountain Mine – a “massive sulfide ore deposit” according to the US. Geological Survey. 

The company that owned the site used open slope and open pit techniques, meaning that mineral deposits were exposed to the air, and to rain-driven runoff, thus disseminating dangerous particles into the surrounding environment. After mining activity ceased in 1963, big waste rock dumps, toxic liquid ponds called tailings and the external and underground mine cavities remained, leading the US. government to declare it a Superfund site in 1983. 

Superfund sites are locations contaminated with hazardous materials that endanger people, fauna and flora in the area. Proximity to waterways can be particularly nefarious as these carry toxins over long distances. The US. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with identifying these, and placing them on a waiting list for clean-up. 

An emerging issue is these sites’ vulnerability to natural disasters, and their amplification by climate change. Sea level rise, floods and wildfires alike can help spread the hazardous materials and affect local communities’ well-being. Californian wildfire seasons have gotten notoriously worse over the past decade, and many have come dangerously close to some west coast Superfund sites. 

In 2018, the Carr Fire burned through 929 km2, destroying at least 1,604 structures (of which 1,077 were homes), damaging 277 others and costing US $1.659 billion in damages. While it places 7th on the list of most destructive fires in the region, it would have been far worse had it travelled just 13 more kilometers north and reached the Iron Mountain Mine Superfund site.

redding california iron mountain mine superfund wildfire

Credit: Casar Corran.

The EPA has its hands full with Superfund sites: the clean-up list is 1344 items long, while clean-ups themselves fell to single digits last year for lack of funding under Trump. These operations are long, arduous and costly, but over 1,000 of the high priority sites are threatened by disasters that are worsening year by year. 

The previous administration had a disregard for environmental issues, and climate change especially. These scientific facts need to be reintegrated into assessments and future planification, but it may be that the results reveal the need of a gargantuan effort that the administration is not ready to tackle. The sad truth is that Superfund sites surrounded by disproportionately poorer neighborhoods, and not richer, large city centers. 

It is a difficult issue that will likely have to solved by targeting the highest impact sites, but these will have to be identified by taking into account the changing nature of our weather. 

This article was written by Owen Mulhern.

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