How EPA’s hazardous waste protection actually kills Americans
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The Trump-appointed head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, last month announced a plan to reform the agency’s “Superfund” program, created in 1980 to clean up hazardous waste sites such as old industrial properties and landfills.

The Wall Street Journal praised the proposed change, arguing the “Superfund has too often become a sinecure for the bureaucracy and a cash cow for lawyers. EPA staff offices can wait years or decades to assess a Superfund site, figure out who’s liable for what, consult with the community, decide on a remedy and assign the actual work.”

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It’s actually much worse than that. Superfund (officially, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act) for decades has been one of the EPA’s greatest travesties.

 

Originally intended to clean up and reduce the risk of toxic-waste sites, it was conceived as a short-term project — $1.6 billion over five years, to clean up some 400 sites (by law, at least one per state and, not coincidentally, about one per congressional district). But it has grown into one of the nation’s largest public-works projects: more than $30 billion spent on about 1,300 sites. 

How could cleaning up toxic-waste sites not be a good thing? Well, various studies have attempted to evaluate the impacts of Superfund’s massive and costly cleanups, but the results are equivocal. Putting that another way, after the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars — no beneficial results have been demonstrable. 

On the other hand, some Superfund projects have definitely caused harm.

University of California Davis economics professor J. Paul Leigh has analyzed the occupational hazards of environmental cleanup projects and concluded that the risk of fatality to the average cleanup worker — a dump-truck driver involved in a collision, say, or a laborer run over by a bulldozer — is considerably larger than the cancer risks to individual residents that might result from exposure to untreated sites. EPA official Carl Mazza admitted that the agency is aware that Superfund policies often conflict with risk analysis, but “political considerations” prevent rational, data-driven decision-making.

EPA’s insistence on too extensive a cleanup is one problem with the implementation of Superfund remediation. In his excellent book, “Breaking the Vicious Circle,” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (then a lower-court judge) addressed the EPA’s counterproductive efforts to eliminate the “last 10 percent” of risk from a substance or activity, noting that it involves “high cost, devotion of considerable agency resources, large legal fees, and endless argument,” with only limited, incremental benefit. He quotes an EPA official as observing “about 95 percent of the toxic material could be removed from [Superfund] waste sites in a few months, but years are spent trying to remove the last little bit.” 

Even former EPA administrator William Reilly admitted that Superfund’s risk-assessment paradigms are flawed. In a 2016 speech at Stanford University while a visiting lecturer, he described the excessive costs of basing cleanups on exaggerated worst-case scenarios, while stifling an area’s potential.

“The risks [Superfund] addresses are worst-case, hypothetical present and future risks to the maximum exposed individual, i.e., one who each day consumes two liters of water contaminated by hazardous waste,” he said.

“The program at one time aimed to achieve a risk range in its cleanups adequate to protect the child who regularly ate liters of dirt,” Reilly said. “And it formerly assumed that all sites, once cleaned up, would be used for residential development, even though many lie within industrial zones. Some of these assumptions have driven clean-up costs to stratospheric levels and, together with liabilities associated with Superfund sites, have resulted in inner-city sites suitable for redevelopment remaining derelict and unproductive.” 

The bottom line is that Superfund has not only been a dismal failure at cleanups but is a net killer of Americans. As the poster-child for what OMB Director Mick Mulvaney called federal programs that “sound good” but don’t work — it needs radical reform and diligent oversight.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.


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