(CN) — A federal watchdog says the U.S. government needs to do a better job of planning for climate change threats to contaminated sites across the country where the government once developed nuclear weapons and researched nuclear energy.
That was just one of the issues raised in a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office, which highlighted a number of challenges to the long-term management of 100 sites that were once contaminated by radiation or other hazards. Some of the sites could become increasingly threatened by extreme weather in the years ahead.
The GAO, an independent agency that monitors how tax dollars are spent, concluded in its review that the Energy Department’s Office of Legacy Management had failed to consider the climate threats, even though it said it would.
“LM has not made plans to assess the effects of climate change on its sites or to mitigate those effects, as called for in its strategic plan,” a summary of the report said.
The sites at the center of the report are scattered across the U.S., with many located in clusters on the West Coast, across the Rocky Mountains region and in the Midwest. They have been the subject of cleanup programs for years, but now require “long-term stewardship” because of lingering environmental concerns.
The GAO report pointed to three examples of contaminated sites where “challenging environmental conditions” could become “more frequent or intense” as the climate changes.
Just outside Denver, Colorado, a mostly empty field disguises what used to be a nuclear weapons facility from the 1950s through the 1990s. The Rocky Flats site, now surrounded by a national wildlife refuge of the same name, has seen a number of “extreme rainfall events” over the past two years that have caused dirt covering a landfill to slump or slip downhill, according to the GAO report.
“In particular, rainfall during 2015 — the site’s wettest year on record, according to LM officials — caused a 20-foot slump in the landfill,” the report said.
The GAO also pointed to contaminated sites in Puerto Rico and Florida that were hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017, though neither were significantly damaged.
According to the report, government officials told the GAO they had not gotten around to a planned review of climate threats because of “competing priorities.” But the report also found evidence that some officials simply were not worried about climate change.
“In addition, LM officials told us they have not assessed the effects of climate change or developed plans to mitigate those effects because of a lack of concern about the risks posed by climate change,” the report said.
The report also described how the managers of several contaminated sites – including Rocky Flats – told the GAO that they had not analyzed the potential impacts of climate change “because they do not believe climate change is a concern.”
According to the report, the Energy Department has now agreed to come up with assessment and mitigation plans for the sites that would take into account any significant effects of climate change. That effort is expected to be finished by September 2022.
Wednesday’s report is not the first from the watchdog office to look at the threats of climate change.
A similar GAO report in October concluded that 60% of the nation’s contaminated Superfund sites could face increased risks of flooding, storm surge and wildfires in the years ahead and that the Environmental Protection Agency should do more to address those risks.