The paper’s environmental reporters have been churning out impressive data journalism for the last few months, showing us everything from how the EPA has gone soft on polluters to how hot climate change has made your city. But their latest project is easily their most horrifying.
This map provides a jarring look at the number of toxic sites in America, and a necessary glimpse of how climate change is increasing the risks of those sites overflowing. But a glimpse is all it is. In reality, the risks are much greater.
There are three reasons for this. As the Times states, “The list does not include properties like Superfund sites or wastewater facilities, or chemical sites where the predominant risks are fire or explosion, as opposed to toxic pollution.” That’s a lot of missing data: There are more than 1,100 Superfund sites in America, nearly a third of which are within a FEMA-designated floodplain, according to the EPA.
The Times’ also acknowledges that the data from the National Response Center “has been criticized as incomplete.” That’s because spills are self-reported by the oil companies responsible, and not everyone trusts oil companies to report all their spills. So, that’s more potential missing data.
Lastly, FEMA’s flood hazard maps have long been criticized as outdated. The agency only uses past floods to determine flood zones; it doesn’t consider science showing how climate change will make flooding worse or change rainfall patterns. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security found that 58 percent of FEMA’s flood maps are inaccurate or out-of-date. The Times rightly points out that floods are getting worse, but their map doesn’t take that into account.
None of this is to criticize the Times’ map, which has started a necessary conversation about America’s toxic waste hurricane problem. It’s just that the truth is probably even more nightmarish than this map suggests.