Energy & Environment

Trump EPA has largest backlog of toxic waste cleanups in 15 years

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The Trump administration has the highest number of unfunded construction projects at major hazardous waste sites of the last 15 years, according to data released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the holidays.

The figures released by the agency focus on projects at Superfund sites, highlighting a backlog of work designed to clean up dangerous contamination.

In 2019, the EPA did not have funding to begin work on 34 Superfund sites, a number more than 50 percent above the highest figures from the Obama administration.

The data was first reported by The Associated Press.

The agency often promotes any closure of Superfund sites with press releases, but the figures released on Dec. 26, with little fanfare, show a growing number of projects as the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to cut the budget of the EPA.

“Every year the president’s budget says they want to cut the Superfund budget by hundreds of millions of dollars and every year Congress says no,” said Betsy Southerland, director of the Office of Science and Technology at the EPA’s Office of Water under the Obama administration.

But as lawmakers instead give the EPA the same funding as the year before, that flatlining has real consequences, she said.

“The Trump administration is not telling Congress the honest number of dollars they need to fund all the projects that are ready to go,” Southerland said. “Congress thinks it’s doing the best possible thing by rejecting the cuts, but they’re not increasing the budget, so projects that are sitting in 2017, are sitting in 2018, and then sitting in 2019.”

Superfund sites include those such as an old metal plating factory that, even after cleanups, was found to be leaking a bright green ooze onto a Michigan highway, along with abandoned mines, landfills and other industrial sites dealing with dangerous materials. 

“When EPA funds new construction projects, it prioritizes those sites that present the greatest risk to human health and the environment,” the agency said in a statement to The Hill.

“EPA will continue to prioritize new construction projects based on which sites present the greatest risk to human health and the environment. Further, the agency maintains the authority to respond to and fund emergencies at these sites if there is an imminent threat to human health and the environment,” the statement read.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has often boasted of the agency’s work on the Superfund program and stressed it as a priority under the Trump administration. 

“Under President Trump, EPA is deleting Superfund sites from the National Priorities List at the fastest pace in more than a decade,” Wheeler said in a 2018 statement, as the agency announced that it was deleting several Superfund sites from the national list.

“This remarkable accomplishment is proof that cleaning up contaminated lands and returning them to safe and productive use is a top priority of the Trump EPA,” he said at the time.

But Southerland said deleting sites from the Superfund list is largely a paperwork exercise, requiring staff to document that all required construction has been completed. In some cases, all the necessary physical labor was done years before, but no one bothered to finalize the paperwork by publishing it to the Federal Register.

“All the cleanup was done in a previous administration, and no one took time to write up a close out report,” she said, arguing Trump’s EPA was taking credit for the work of others while “continuing to tell a false story to Congress about the money they really need to clean up these sites in a more rapid fashion.”

Tags Andrew Wheeler Donald Trump Environmental Protection Agency EPA Hazardous waste Superfund

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