Even Trump should want the Superfund to be super

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When it comes to the environment, the Trump budget proposal was true to campaign promises — it would decimate the Environmental Protection Agency pretty much across the board, with the hatchet aimed with particular violence at programs and research related to climate change.

Overall, Trump would cut the EPA budget by  31 percent and reduce the EPA workforce by 3200 positions. Many climate change programs would be obliterated.

{mosads}Based on campaign and transition team rhetoric, none of this is truly a surprise. But somewhat startling is Trump’s  decision to ignore entirely the very public statements by the EPA’s Trump-appointed administrator Scott Pruitt who urged protection of the Superfund program, which is now targeted for a more than 30 percent cut. Clearly, someone was not listening when Pruitt called the Superfund program “essential to protect.”


Congress enacted the Superfund program in 1980 in response to the Love Canal and other environmental disasters created by dumping of hazardous materials and the remnants of industrial waste. Under the Superfund program, the most dangerous legacy hazardous waste sites in the country were supposed to be cleaned up – quickly.

That has not happened. There are currently more than 1300 “Superfund sites” across the country, with new sites still being added to the list.

Most Superfund sites are tied to former industrial operations that are located on hundreds of thousands of acres of land that are now both dangerous and useless. Many of these sites are also located in the heart of the U.S. rust belt and other once-vibrant industrial corridors. Without clean up, these sites hamper any real possibility for industrial or residential renewal in these areas.

From this perspective, continuing support for the Superfund program fits squarely in the Trump administration’s broader goal of renewing the American industrial base. Even without concern for the environment, the Trump administration should support Superfund clean ups.

From an environmental perspective, these sites pose devastating threats to the health of millions of people, including children, who live nearby. Roughly 11 million people and three to four million children live within a mile of a Superfund site.

Contaminants at Superfund sites include lead and other heavy metals, poisons like dioxins and PCBs, asbestos, and radiation. Lead, which is a primary contaminant at many of these sites, is now well known to affect neurological and biological development in children and can have devastating lifelong effects, including brain and neurological damage, slowed learning and lower IQs.

The Superfund program has been far from perfect. Historically, Superfund cleanups have been slow — in the more than 36 years since the Superfund program was launched, only 392 sites — out of more than 1700 – have been completely cleaned up.

What’s taking so long? One big issue is money. The Superfund program got its name from its original funding scheme. When it was enacted in 1980, the law — formally known as CERCLA or the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act —was funded primarily through a tax on chemical and oil companies. The tax was based on a theory of the polluter pays. These companies were and are responsible for the contamination of many of the legacy hazardous waste sites across the country.

The tax created a “Superfund,” which could be used for clean ups.  Where the companies responsible for the contamination could not be found or no longer existed, the Superfund provided funds for clean up. When the responsible companies were still around and liability for contamination could be proven, EPA or states could use the Superfund monies to speed clean up and seek reimbursement from the polluters later.

But Congress let the tax expire in 1996 and the fund today is depleted. Many of the companies responsible for the contamination have disappeared or gone through bankruptcy. Without funding, the hazardous waste sites these companies left behind will stay as they are – dangerous and useless – and will strip economically starving areas of the opportunity for redevelopment.

Even where the responsible companies are still operating – and many very wealthy companies responsible for some of these sites are – some companies fight with EPA for years over their responsibility or the scope of the required clean up. These delays account for much of the 13 years on average it now takes to clean up a Superfund site. And some sites take as long as 30 years.

Funding isn’t the only problem. The Superfund program today operates under a regulatory scheme that allows clean ups to get bogged down in years of data gathering and analysis rather than actual clean up. The answer here isn’t killing the program; instead, there is an opportunity for real regulatory reform that places far greater emphasis on faster cleanups and protection of people living near these sites, especially children.

Keeping in mind pledges to “make America great again,” and looking towards the promised “infrastructure” spending, the Superfund program, presents a real opportunity for steps in that direction. There are more than 1300 sites to clean up. Thousands of people could be employed for several years doing that work. Once cleaned up, huge parts of the country could then be put back to productive use for jobs that can continue into the future. As Pruitt said, “That means jobs and communities have a cleaner environment.” And, not insignificantly, millions of children will be protected.

Nancy C. Loeb is an assistant clinical professor and the director of the Environmental Advocacy Center, at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. The Center represents residents at Superfund sites in Illinois and Indiana.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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