The Army shouldn’t oversee Superfund sites like West Lake

I have enormous sympathy for the residents living near the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo. There is no justice in a system that allows them to face the potential risks of radioactive material, the legacy of the World War II Manhattan Project. 

So nobody should be surprised when they insist upon prompt and effective government action to avert the danger. They are right to insist upon it urgently and to put forward constructive proposals on how best to get it done.

I am concerned, however, that one proposal currently under consideration — the transfer of cleanup responsibility to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) — would actually be a move in the wrong direction. Here’s why.

From 2003 until 2009, I served under President George W. Bush as assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works. I was responsible for the civil works activities of the Corps, including the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). 

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FUSRAP was created in 1997 to give the Corps responsibility for cleanup at a limited number of sites with radioactive waste contamination from the Manhattan Project. These were essentially orphaned sites that the Department of Energy, which had the cleanup responsibility at the time, was not making progress on. They were sites where the only option for cleanup was direct federal action since no other responsible parties could be found.

 

Congress allocated $100 million per year for the FUSRAP program, and that appropriation has not grown much since. President Trump is proposing just $118 million to FUSRAP for fiscal 2018. The idea was that this limited number of sites would be remediated, and the program would sunset — a few sites have been added over the years, but not many. 

FUSRAP was designed for a very specific purpose, and it is just not set up to handle cases like West Lake Landfill. The cleanup is being done with funding from non-federal responsible parties, as it should be. The Corps doesn’t have the same authority that the Environmental Protection Agency does to order private parties to participate in funding cleanup activities. 

So, what would happen if Congress assigns responsibility for the West Lake Landfill cleanup to the Corps? Well, for a long time, nothing would happen. 

The Corps can’t do anything without an appropriation, and the $118 million in the president’s budget is already allocated for ongoing projects in Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Congressional rules prohibit earmarks to add funding for specific projects during the appropriations process. The Corps wouldn’t see any money for West Lake until October 2018 at the earliest. 

But, would that even happen? FUSRAP allocates its funding by prioritizing sites based on numerous factors, and nobody has calculated how West Lake would measure up against the other 24 sites in the program. It may well show up at the bottom of the list, who knows? 

In that case, the West Lake project won’t see funding for many years. One thing is for sure, the Corps won’t do anything until Congress appropriates money for it. 

When the Corps does start work, they will duplicate many of the efforts the EPA has already accomplished, and that will take more time. FUSRAP does a pretty good job with the limited sites under its care, but that’s in part because they are limited projects not entangled in the complexities associated with a Superfund site like West Lake. 

I would urge those advocating transferring responsibility for West Lake to take a hard look at the implications.

The alternative? I sure don’t advocate business as usual. But the EPA has new leadership, and Administrator Scott Pruitt has gone on record as saying that Superfund sites in general, and the West Lake Landfill in particular, are a top priority and will receive his personal attention. 

I would hold him to that and give the EPA one more chance to succeed.

John Paul Woodley Jr. served as assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works under President George W. Bush. He is a principal with Advantus Strategies, LLC, a Virginia-based government relations firm.


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