Baykeeper Update

Storm Surges are a Major Risk for Bay Legacy Pollution Sites

Recent severe storms in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico have left tragic trails of destruction along coastal areas. This devastation serves as a vital reminder of the need to prepare for flooding—and how big the threats are to San Francisco Bay.

One of the most alarming reports out of the Houston area was of floods rushing through at least 12 contaminated Superfund sites, spreading harmful pollutants, such as dioxins, benzene, and PCBs, far and wide. But hurricane-prone regions are not the only areas that are vulnerable to pollution-loaded floods. Here in the Bay Area, we face a similar threat from both severe weather flooding—likely to increase as climate change causes more dramatic weather—and from gradual sea level rise.  

Historically contaminated sites are located all along the Bay, particularly in current and former industrial hotspots, including in San Francisco, Oakland, Redwood City, and Richmond. Some of these sites rest at or just above sea level. Rising sea levels and stronger storms could inundate these areas and wash hazardous waste into the Bay and its tributaries. This means our communities, wildlife, and the entire Bay ecosystem are at risk of potential toxic exposure.  

Unfortunately, cleanup has stalled at many contaminated sites around the Bay. One of the main reasons is that many of the polluting companies no longer exist, and so there is no one that can be held accountable for the costs of expensive cleanup. In these cases, it has been left up to local agencies to contain hazardous waste before it causes harm to the environment and public health.

For example, the Bay Area is home to a number of open Superfund sites. Superfund sites are highly contaminated legacy pollution areas that require extensive cleanup before the land can be reused. The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Superfund site in San Francisco is one example. For many years, the area hosted the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, resulting in a legacy of radioactive contamination of the surrounding land.

The site lies just above sea level at the shoreline [see Google shoreline view, below]. According to current projections, the former naval shipyard will be subject to flooding in the coming decades.

Other Bay Area Superfund sites are located near the shoreline or along tributaries in Alameda, Oakland, Richmond, and San Jose.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, has expressed support for cleaning up Superfund sites. But the Trump administration’s proposed budget contradicts that message by making cuts to the EPA that would make Superfund cleanups extremely unlikely.

A view of Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, a Superfund site, which lies very close to the waterline. Baykeeper worked with Google to map the Bay shoreline for sea level rise monitoring and planning.

In the Houston area, our sister waterkeeper organizations, including the Bayou City Waterkeeper, and the national Waterkeeper Alliance, responded to Hurricane Harvey. These waterkeepers were on the ground and on the water in the aftermath of the storm, assessing damages and developing long-term cleanup and water quality monitoring plans.

Unfortunately, the main lesson learned from the Houston floods is that hazardous materials must be cleaned up before flooding causes toxic pollution to enter the watershed.

Baykeeper recently worked with Google to map the San Francisco Bay shoreline for sea level rise planning, and we are now identifying vulnerable toxic hot spots. The Bay Area shouldn’t wait until after a toxic storm surge to start addressing the serious issue of contaminated lands around the Bay.