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Floods could be leaking pollution from Superfund sites in Charleston area

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The former Koppers wood-treatment plant in the Charleston Neck Area is among 26 National Priority cleanup sites in South Carolina that the General Accounting Office recently reported are in danger of leaching chemicals due to flooding or wildfire spurred by climate warming. File/Staff

Some of the more than 900 most heavily polluted sites in the U.S. — including 26 in South Carolina and two in the Charleston region — already could be leaking from the effects of flooding, sea rise or wildfire, a federal agency says.

The Charleston sites already are known to flood during storm tides and other excessive sea rises.

The Environmental Protection Agency must do more to protect those National Priority sites, the watchdog General Accounting Office reported to Congress. The properties are also known as Superfund sites.

Two of the sites are infamous waterfront tracts in the Neck Area: the former Macalloy and Koppers plants, both of which have been eyed for residential or business development.

"To help ensure the long-term protectiveness of remedies, it is important for EPA to understand how climate change impacts" sites such as these, the report concluded.

The findings are likely to spark partisan fireworks in a political climate where the the Trump administration actively seeks to roll back environmental regulations and leading figures say they are skeptical about human-induced climate warming.

The study was requested by one Democratic congresswoman and nine Democratic and one independent senator. The list includes senators and presidential candidates Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders.

South Carolina's two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, were not a part of the request.

The EPA responded to the findings by saying managing the risks is integral to its strategic goals.

Its Southeast region office did not respond to an email asking for the cleanup status of the former Macalloy and Koppers plants.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control technical staff was still reviewing the report and wouldn't comment immediately, spokeswoman Laura Renwick said.     

The 110-acre Macalloy site in North Charleston along Shipyard Creek was a smelting plant operating for more than a half-century before it closed in 1998, leaving the property contaminated with hexavalent chromium and other toxic metals. Despite earlier cleanups it is considered to still need millions of dollars of environmental work.

The 102-acre Koppers site along the Ashley River in Charleston is a former wood-treatment facility that closed in 1978 after operating nearly 40 years. Its ground and water are contaminated with arsenic and dioxin, among other highly toxic chemicals. 

The EPA in 2018 listed it among 31 polluted U.S. properties with the highest potential for commercial reuse, despite cleanup work that has been ongoing for 25 years.

The lengthy cleanup included digging up and disposing of polluted dirt, and placing a cap over portions of the 102-acre site.

The sites listed in the report "are among the most dangerous in the nation," said Kirstin Dow, a University of South Carolina professor who co-edited a 2013 report by more than 100 researchers that found the Southeast was already experiencing the effects of climate warming, including more flooding.

The Charleston sites are already underwater during flood tides, she said.

"The government watchdog is sounding the alarm that the Environmental Protection Agency is woefully unprepared to keep the water we drink safe from legacy industrial pollution," said Alan Hancock, the energy and climate advocacy director for the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League.

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