The Environmental Impacts of Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy tore through the northeast coastline last week leaving millions without power and causing an estimated $20 billion in property damages according to IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm. By landing in one of the most densely populated areas in the US, Hurricane Sandy’s powerful winds and torrential downpours hit areas at high-risk for contaminant release into the environment. Superfund sites, nuclear power plants, and oil refineries were all in peril. While the Northeast can breathe a sigh of relief that the risks of a nuclear meltdown at Oyster Creek Plant and landslides in New Jersey were not realized, the greatest environmental impacts of Hurricane Sandy might have been manifested in water contamination.
Superfund sites (heavily contaminated industrial sites slated for federal cleanup) Newton Creek and Gowanus Canal are both located in Brooklyn, NY. Newton Creek weathered the storm without releasing its toxins, however the EPA reported that Gowanus Canal flooded. While the agency has stated that there are no significant health risks because the majority of what spilled was ocean water, there are some citizens who are still concerned about potential toxic residue exposed by the flooding left in the streets.
In addition to the threat of contaminants from the Superfund sites, there were an estimated 630 storm-related oil spills in New York City. However, New Jersey took the worst blow regarding oil contamination after a significant diesel fuel spill at the Motiva Refinery into the 10-mile-long, 600-foot wide tidal strait separating New Jersey from New York's Staten Island, known as Arthur Kill. According to New Jersey environmental officials, the AP reported 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the Arthur Kill waterway after a storage tank ruptured from the storm surge. The resulting damaging environmental implications resulting from the spill could leave a lasting scar on the sensitive salt marshes in the waterway, which are important wildlife habitats and nursery areas for fish. According to NOAA, there is also a threat of large fish kills due to low oxygen levels in the water resulting from the biodegradation of the oil.
Hurricane Sandy hit sewer system infrastructures across New Jersey and New York hard, causing an immediate public and environmental health threat through water contamination. 10 treatment plants in NYC reported discharges of partially treated or untreated sewage into local waterways. Although no official figures have been released for Hurricane Sandy, last year Hurricane Irene resulted in 43 million gallons of partially treated sewage into Long Island Sound after a mechanical failure. This toxic untreated sewage can be diluted and distributed quickly throughout waterways leading to widespread contamination.
It will be difficult to develop an accurate evaluation of the water contamination resulting from damage caused by Hurricane Sandy due to countless non-point sources of pollution. Spillage from Superfund sites or sewage plants can have the greatest impacts and be easily identified. However, the flushing of large quantities of pesticides, contaminants, and bacteria into rivers and estuaries from across entire landscapes also has detrimental impacts on water quality. The USGS is sampling water in Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath to develop an understanding of the changes in water quality across impacted regions. Contaminants such as pesticides and E. coli in water affect both human and wildlife health. On a longer time scale, excessive nutrients introduced to waterways by increased runoff from the land due to Hurricane Sandy has the potential to cause algal blooms across the region leading to the degradation of those ecosystems and increased costs to treat drinking water.
The resulting environmental impacts from Hurricane Sandy will need to be dealt with over years if not decades, especially if they are compounded by the Nor’easters predicted to hit soon. Potentially in part due to the geographic location of the worst damage of the hurricane, the media coverage of the storm was remarkable in comparison to previous storms. Hurricane Sandy has resulted in a widespread public discussion of global climate change as a major contributing factor to the intensity and frequency of storms over the past several years. Many high profile figures and newspapers weighed in:
New York City Mayor Bloomberg is quoted as saying “Our climate is changing… And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action. …”
Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the USA National Center for Atmospheric Research, suggested that Hurricane Sandy represents the “new normal”.
In what has become one of the most widely cited articles concerning the relationship between Hurricane Sandy and global warming, the title of Bloomberg Businessweek’s article boldly proclaimed “It’s Global Warming, Stupid”
Protecting our environment can reduce the threat posed by superstorms such as Hurricane Sandy to both human and environmental health and safety. Without the substantial amount of toxins industries release into the environment, the threat of water contamination would not be a significant risk posed to human health. Whether by conservation efforts such as promoting oyster bed development to break up wave action, or by combating climate change through reducing our carbon dioxide emissions, our nation can begin preparing for what are predicted to become increasingly intense storms.
Here at WegoWise, we hope all who were affected by Hurricane Sandy are safe and recovering well.
P.S. Don’t forget to vote!