Clean up EPA’s inefficient toxic waste program

Clean up EPA’s inefficient toxic waste program
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EPA’s Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program is in need of leadership.

Albert Kelly, the Superfund advisor to EPA administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittJuan Williams: Swamp creature at the White House Science protections must be enforceable Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention MORE, recently resigned his position leading the controversial program.


The Superfund advisor reports to EPA’s assistant administrator — another vacant position, although President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE has nominated Peter Wright.


Unfortunately, Democratic senators have made it very difficult for the Senate to push such candidates through the “advise and consent” process.

Why am I pushing so hard in getting a Superfund assistant administrator in place? Simply stated, more money for the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program is not Superfund’s problem. The problem is the difficulty in getting a knowledgeable, results-oriented assistant administrator in place to manage Superfund properly.

While Superfund has cleaned up 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, people living near Superfund sites are often unhappy with the excessive time needed to complete the site clean up.

The good news is that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has put a high priority on completing Superfund sites in a timely and cost-effective manner. But, he badly needs a “chief operating officer” in the assistant administrator position to get this work done.

The idea is not for the assistant administrator to micro-manage every Superfund project, but to see that site schedules are adhered to and to make, if necessary, timely final decisions for complex site remedies.

Here are other specific steps needed to fix the Superfund program.

First, the key is to recognize that Superfund remediation is not an exact science, which is why experienced senior managers are needed to oversee such Superfund remedy issues as hazardous waste management, cost-effectiveness, and community and state interactions with EPA.

Second, EPA should promptly deal with the most important Superfund problem — the lack of firm deadlines for completing projects. 

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

Frankly, much of the costly activities are because Superfund has become a lucrative source of work for lawyers and consultants. At a Senate hearing years ago I was asked by the late 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 seem to really want to finish the project, as it is a very lucrative program for many. 

One answer to this problem is to ensure that both EPA and the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) need to ensure that the contracted work is only focused on information actually needed to select the best site remedy.

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 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, a more cost-effective approach by PRPs would be for them to make proposals to the EPA for good remedies and then offer to do the study and cleanup work themselves.

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

Fifth, 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 much more time to remedy selection and further confuses the EPA chain of command. 

Finally, Congress may need modest legislative activities to ensure some of the fixes, particularly those related to deadlines for major site remediation activities. Some specific suggestions: the cost and time limits for emergency removals should be increased from $2 million to $5 million and one year to two years to maximize these cost effective measures.

In addition, within 18 months of a Superfund site listing EPA should identify any early responses needed to deal with obvious contamination problems. The site remedial investigation/feasibility study (RI/FS) should normally be completed in no more than 30 months from site listing on the Superfund list. Finally, a site remedy should be issued no later than 12 months of completion of the RI/FS. 

Looking ahead, Superfund sites should increasingly be taken on by appropriate state superfund programs, which are usually much less costly than EPA’s. Keep in mind that, unlike air and water issues, waste site problems usually involve a matter of acres and almost always occur in only one state.

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is a former EPA Assistant Administrator with national responsibility for Superfund and other waste programs. Currently, he is a national environmental and energy consultant, based in Atlanta, Georgia.