EPA chief puts new spotlight on cleanup program
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt is looking to make a key federal program focused on cleaning contaminated sites an integral part of his agenda at the agency.
With an eye toward expediting cleanups of contaminated sites and getting to work on languishing projects, Pruitt in recent weeks has formed a task force on the Superfund program and has issued a directive for the most expensive projects to go to him for approval.
Pruitt has also used the program’s recent history to criticize the Obama administration, pointing out that the more than 1,300 sites on the EPA’s priority list for cleanups is bigger now than it was when former President Barack Obama took office.
Superfund – a key program under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 – has broad, bipartisan support in Congress and elsewhere, owing to its mission of cleaning up contaminated areas and making them usable for commercial development.
Pruitt’s focus on the program, therefore, could pay dividends for his political future – and he’s unlikely to face strong opposition. But experts familiar with the program warn that his Superfund agenda could be ineffective or short-sighted, since it could lead to cleanups that are faster and cheaper but less thorough.
The EPA chief’s critics argue that the real problem with the Superfund is funding, owing in part to the expiration of a tax on the oil and chemical industries that has expired.
The Trump administration could make the funding problem worse. President Trump’s budget proposal this week sought a $327 million cut – or 30 percent – to Superfund.
For the most part, the EPA uses the program to supervise cleanups funded by the companies responsible for the contamination. But if those companies are bankrupt or cannot pay, the EPA occasionally pays for the process, using taxpayer money, since the tax has expired.
To Pruitt, Superfund is a key example of a program where the EPA can make a real difference.
He’s been working to dismantle many of Obama’s major environmental regulations, like those limited carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and the federal power over waterways.
It represents a shift away from emphasizing large-scale environmental problems like climate change to more local, acute pollution challenges that Pruitt is judging as more urgent.
“We have about 1,322 Superfund sites across the country. And what’s amazing about those Superfund sites is many of those sites have been listed on the National Priority List not for two years, not for four years, but sometimes, for decades,” he said at a conference earlier this week.
“Yeah, some of the most important work that we do as an agency — or should be doing, better put — is with respect to the Superfund responsibilities,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt earlier in May.
“Superfund sites, we have more today than when President Obama came into office,” Pruitt said, citing the figure to argue that Obama had few, if any, environmental accomplishments.
Pruitt has also challenged the notion that he couldn’t accomplish his Superfund goals with a significantly lower budget, arguing that money isn’t the problem.
“I think a lot of this stuff is not money related, I think it’s truly and management and leadership that’s needed,” he said at the recent conference. “And as money is needed, we’re going to ask Congress for it.”
Pruitt directed the agency to look at ways to make cleanups more effective and efficient, reduce costs and speed up both the EPA’s internal processes and the cleanups themselves.
Any cleanups estimated to cost $50 million or more must also get Pruitt’s approval to ensure that the money is being well spent, among other priorities.
The policy has gotten mixed reviews, though even some critics are optimistic.
“I think this review is long overdue, and I think there are a number of people within EPA who wouldn’t disagree,” said Doug Arnold, an attorney with the firm Alston & Bird who represents industry clients, including companies that have had to pay for cleanups.
“I think within the regulated community, companies that have been part of either performing work under Superfund or funding work under Superfund would certainly agree that the process for getting properties remediated, in too many cases, takes too long,” he said. “Administrator Pruitt is right to ask the EPA team to step back and think about whether there are any ways to improve the efficiency of the program.”
“I think it’s good that there is attention brought to it,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee’s subpanel with responsibility for Superfund. “We have not done a lot of work on that in the last couple of years.”
But Mathy Stanislaus, who led the EPA’s land and emergency management office under Obama, said Pruitt’s policies worry him.
“I worry that this is going to lead to cheaper remedies, remedies that leave more contaminants in place, more exposure in place,” he said. “Which has the potential consequence of not just leaving exposure in place, but also delaying economic recovery.”
Stanislaus said he was concerned, for example, that Pruitt’s memos did not mention public health as a priority in the cleanups.
He said that it’s always a good idea to look at efficiencies, but without more funding, it will be hard to get much done.
Obama proposed each year he was in office to reinstate the Superfund tax on oil and chemical companies, which funded orphan cleanups and expired in 1995.
Numerous Democrats, like Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), have proposed bringing it back, but their push has gotten little traction.
“Every year, Congress has chosen not to pass that, and basically say that the taxpayers should pay for these, which I don’t think makes any sense,” Stanislaus said.
Stanislaus also criticized Pruitt for citing the number of Superfund sites on the priority list as a sign of Obama’s failures.
The priority list is based only on measurements of the need for cleanup, he said.
“It completely fails to understand the program,” Stanislaus said. “The fact is that listing on the site is exclusively based on a scientific evaluation of risk. There’s a very methodical evaluation of risk.”
Craig Johnston, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School who once worked on Superfund at the EPA and now studies the program, agreed that Pruitt’s review could yield benefits.
But EPA has significant leeway in how it orders cleanups, and Johnston also worried that communities near sites would not be able to challenge ineffective actions.
“My fear is that he’s going to say all of the decisions are going to come out of headquarters, and then drip by drip, we’re going to see that they’re much less protective remedies, and they’ll be very difficult to challenge,” he said.
EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham said that the fear of less protective cleanups is completely unfounded.
“The notion that streamlining and improving the Superfund program will somehow lead to less protective or effective cleanups is false. Applicable regulations require us to select remedies that will be protective to human health and the environment based on the anticipated future use of the site and other criteria,” she said in a statement.
“That isn’t changing as a part of this initiative. Unlike the previous administration that failed to prioritize the Superfund program, Administrator Pruitt is providing real leadership that will lead to better results at Superfund sites across the country.”
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