Returning Reagan-era principles to the EPA

Returning Reagan-era principles to the EPA
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I was a President Reagan appointee to the Superfund assistant administrator position, where I was guided by his view that “preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it’s common sense.”

EPA’s Superfund program identifies and cleans up contaminated land and responds to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters.


Unfortunately, over more than 30 years many Superfund site cleanups now take too long and cost too much to clean up


I’ve previously proposed setting of firm deadlines to complete Superfund sites, better management of the interminable site studies, and more use of cost-effective “emergency removals” to deal with obvious environmental issues.

Fortunately, EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 | Commerce Department led 'flawed process' on Sharpiegate, watchdog finds | EPA to end policy suspending pollution monitoring by end of summer Watchdog: EPA hasn't provided 'sufficient justification' for decision not to recover Pruitt travel spending OVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change MORE has already taken on the challenge of reversing the meandering and costly pace of Superfund cleanups. His approach is to identify sites that require his personal attention to ensure that such sites are completed in a common sense, scientific and cost-effective manner.

Recently, the administrator and his staff have named 20 sites for which he will expedite their final remedies. Naming these sites “targeted for immediate and intense attention,” is not necessarily a commitment to increased funding.

Along with the list, EPA notes, “Pruitt has set the expectation that there will be a renewed focus on accelerating work and progress at all Superfund sites across the country.” 

One of these sites has a particularly high profile due to its complexity and many decades of investigations. It is the West Lake Landfill in Bridgton, Missouri. Pruitt intends to approve a “proposed plan” for this site before the end of January 2018.

Pruitt must decide whether to cap the site (covering contaminated material), partially excavate it or fully excavate it. Unfortunately, pressure from activist groups will make an option of complex excavation seem like safe politics. But a decision based on activists’ pressures is a decision that often ignores real science.

The overwhelming evidence at West Lake Landfill favors a cap-in-place solution. The site does contain radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project, but extensive government testing has shown that the waste is contained and safe for nearby residents. The cost and timeline for a cap are reasonable and the solution is safe for residents and environmental workers. 

Excavation of any kind will risk harm to the environment, local residents and taxpayers because the radioactive material deep within West Lake cannot be removed easily. It is not simply a layer that can be exposed and scraped away, but a mixed, compacted jumble of waste that, if unearthed, will require expensive and dangerous handling and relocation. It is also impossible to know, prior to digging, how much excavation will be needed, meaning “partial excavation” is a misleading definition.

Very importantly, the capping remedy is expected to cost about
$70 million, while the excavation-type option more like $600 million and a much longer timeframe to complete.

Pruitt will have to show common-sense leadership and make sure he is making a decision based on science, timeliness and economics.

Looking forward, Pruitt also needs to carefully select a new Superfund chief who will oversee an increasingly efficient Superfund process. Remediation efforts must be protected from politics and time-consuming bureaucracy.

It is instructive to go back to the Reagan days and note that the Superfund law specifically requires that the government select a protective and cost-effective clean-up plan. Hopefully, Pruitt will return to these basic principles.

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is a national environmental and energy consultant, based in Savannah, GA. Porter previously served as an assistant administrator of the U.S. EPA in Washington DC.