The EPA can fix Superfund

The EPA can fix Superfund
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Many activists are critical of President Trump and his EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA moving ahead with science transparency rule by 'early next year' Overnight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year Trump administration to repeal waterway protections MORE for reducing funds for the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program. But money is not Superfund’s problem.

Actually, over the 37- year life of Superfund the basic problem has been site cleanups take too long and cost too much. The good news is that Pruitt has put a high priority on completing Superfund sites in a timely and cost-effective manner.


I was the EPA assistant administrator in the early days with national responsibility for Superfund, and since then a frequent consultant on hazardous waste sites. My belief is that EPA career staff is generally competent, but what is often missing are EPA presidential-appointees who can ensure that Superfund sites are dealt with effectively.


While Superfund has completed over a thousand contaminated sites, the work completed is not nearly commensurate with the huge public and private dollars spent — well over $100 billion. Also important, people living near Superfund sites are often unhappy with the excessive times needed to complete the sites. 

Here are the steps needed to fix Superfund. 

First, the president and Congress need to get the new Superfund chief appointed. The assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response is the national manager for Superfund. As such, he or she has the final authority to approve Superfund cleanups. We need a person with technical and project management skills and a strong bent toward results.

The key is that Superfund remediation is not an exact science, which is why experienced senior managers are needed to deal with such disparate Superfund items as waste toxicity issues, cleanup cost-effectiveness and community reaction matters.

Second, EPA should promptly deal with the most important Superfund problem — the lack of firm deadlines for completing projects. It is actually unusual to have clear deadlines for remedy selection and site completion activities.

Also, EPA senior management should insist that remedy selection for Superfund sites should take place in less than 30 months. The assistant administrator can always allow somewhat more time for very complex sites, like remediation of nuclear weapons facilities.

Unfortunately, at many sites, the study work meanders around for 5 to 15 years without even selecting a cleanup remedy. As for costs, some recent studies, ranging from New Jersey to Oregon, have exceeded $100 million.

Frankly, much of such lengthy and costly activities is because Superfund has become a lucrative source of work for lawyers and consultants. At a Senate hearing I was once asked by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) why, after all these years, Superfund cleanups take so long. My answer: At many sites I find few people who really want to finish the project.

Third, the most effective part of the Superfund program has been “emergency removals” and other early actions, which directly correct obvious environmental problems. These early cleanup activities also inform later, more extensive work activities

Unfortunately, the EPA bureaucracy and lawyers for the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) often stymie these early action efforts with such interminable debates as to who will pay what.

Fourth, PRPs caught up in Superfund should be more active and not just with their lawyers and consultants, some of whom tend to string out the process. A more cost-effective approach by PRPs would be to make proposals to EPA for good remedies and then offer to conduct the cleanup work themselves. (They will have to pay anyway someday.) 

Over the years, a troubling trend has been for many companies to turn Superfund over to their legal departments. The resultant outside lawyers have increasingly become the de facto Superfund site managers.

Last but not least, the EPA should get rid of “remedy review boards” which were set up years ago to make sure that the “right” site remedy was selected. In other words, EPA middle managers from around the country can second-guess more senior local managers regarding the remedy. This adds time to remedy selection and further confuses the EPA chain of command.

Looking ahead, Superfund sites should increasingly be taken on by appropriate state superfund programs, which are usually much less costly than EPA and closer to the problems. For example, unlike air and water issues, waste site problems usually involve only one state.

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is an energy and environmental consultant based in Savannah, Georgia. He previously served as an assistant administrator of the EPA.